City of Toronto municipal licensing and standards director Tracey Cook speaks at ITWC's Technicity conference on Dec. 12, 2017. Courtesy Darrow Multimedia Inc.

Published: December 18th, 2017

Tracey Cook thinks the digital transformation of municipal licensing is long overdue.

And the City of Toronto’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards told IT World Canada during the company’s recent Technicity conference that she thinks the technology that holds the future of licensing in its hands is the blockchain.

“We need to enable the 50-some-odd thousand people who physically come into my office every year to take advantage of that digital exchange of information, because with that comes data and comes efficiencies on all sides – the user on our side, the constituent on theirs, and deployment staff,” she said. “I think there’s a tonne of opportunity.”

Cook’s department was most recently in the news (and won an ITWC Digital Transformation Award) for its first effort at creating a digital registration system, for drivers interested in working with Uber.

That experiment is going well so far, she said, and the city expects there to be “other opportunities where individual people don’t have to come into an office and register.”

“56,000 businesses were coming into the city every year,” Cook said. “What we’ve done with Uber is license 60,000 on top of that, and that was 100 per cent digital. So that’s still 50,000 people that we could try to enable to deal with us through electronic means.”

AirBNB is next.

“We enabled an online registry for apartment buildings. Pretty simple, but still, it was different for this city,” she said. “We’ll see where it takes us. I think there’s a tonne of opportunity in all of our departments, we just need to get there.”

Cook’s evangelism on behalf of the blockchain, a distributed series of databases that record, validate, and organize the information that users create while performing actions online, comes from a place of experience too: Toronto’s municipal government recently ran a proof-of-concept project with the Province of Ontario involving restaurant licenses.

“Restaurant operators have to provide the same type of information to three or four or five different agencies, so we asked ourselves: How do we make it easier?” she said.

Blockchain technology proved perfect for the project, she said, with restauranteurs invited to register online using the municipal, provincial, and federal governments and their agencies as nodes.

“Blockchain is about trust, and this approach lets us trust the data by having us all rely on each others’ information,” Cook said.

Unfortunately, she could not share numbers from the project, saying it was focused on identifying how a blockchain-based approach to licensing might work and how the various parts might connect with each other, rather than arriving at a goal where it could quantify the results.

“It was a great proof of concept, but we’re not sure where we’re going to go next,” she admitted. “But it was interesting, at least as far as cutting the red tape for restaurant operators. So I think it’s got a lot of potential.”

“From the perspective of the person who wants to open a restaurant, or needs to keep providing the same documents over and over to different levels of government, or different agencies, it’s definitely a savings,” she added. “It helps the government too – fewer people handling paper because there’s less paper to be handled, and we can rely on what was done upstream.”