Adventures in municipal websites

I have a new house, and it has an alarm system. In Austin, you need a permit for that.

I dutifully fill out the “online” application form. Instead of being prompted for payment, the website gives me a PDF with all my information in it. I’m supposed to mail that in with a check.

Mildly annoyed, I print out the form. A couple days later I get around to actually mailing the thing. I realize now that nowhere on the form or the website does it actually tell me how much money I owe the city. Weird.

So, fine. I searched for “austin alarm permit fee”, and the first hit was another city website that gives me a helpful and easy-to-read fee schedule. But wait, why isn’t this information on the actual alarm permit website?

And wait a minute, why does this alarm permit thing have its own website in the first place?

At the bottom of the permit site, it suddenly becomes clear: I haven’t submitted my information to the city, but to a product called “CryWolf“, whose patented process will identify and punish those who generate false alarms.


Back in December 2012, it looks like the Austin City Council contracted with JP Morgan for an enterprise-wide online payment system which should have included CryWolf. It definitely doesn’t.

So now I have many questions, including:

  1. Is the city paying anything extra for this CryWolf permit administration? If so, I hope it’s making life easier on the back-end, because the end-user experience leaves a lot to be desired.
  2. Did the city elect to not pay CryWolf for online payments, or is that something that they just don’t do?
  3. Why isn’t this CryWolf system integrated into the rest of
  4. I just gave these CryWolf folks a lot of my personal information. How is it being used, and under what circumstances will it be shared? There is no terms of service on the permitting site at all.
  5. What’s the schedule for this unified online payment system that JP Morgan is helping us with?
  6. As a citizen, how can I help fix the end-user experience for this and other permitting systems? If the answer is “you can’t, we’re paying rent on this online service”, well… I’d be disappointed.