CityFIRST is a financing model being implemented by cities throughout California that allows property owners to install solar systems and energy efficiency upgrades with no upfront cost. Cities and counties can implement this program locally, and it allows homeowners to opt-in and pay off the costs of the upgrade over 20 years through their property taxes. The benefit to homeowners is clear - reduced energy costs and the chance to participate in making the world a little greener at the same time.
CityFIRST is financed by taxable municipal bonds providing participants with low interest rates, fixed for 20 years. It is a 100% opt-in program and can dramatically reduce energy costs and boost the local solar market. One of the big challenges in rolling out the program is making people aware it is there and giving cities an efficient means to take advantage of it, and organizations like Renewable Funding have been taking the lead in promoting it throughout the state.
Providing an efficient way for city governments to take advantage of this program is a big challenge. For every person applying for a solar grant, there needs to be some verification before issuing a big tax break and financing home improvements. Property ownership, residency, municipality and a lot of other details must be fact checked before registrants can participate in the program, and most cities lack the infrastructure and manpower to process these manually. The process becomes more complicated when you consider the idea that each city will have it's own requirements for verifying eligibility. Therefore, any good solution for handling registrations has to be customizable to meet local and state requirements.
In the real world, when someone goes to the work of applying for a tax break, he or she is going to want to know the status of their applications. Not every local government has the manpower to dedicate people to manning the phones, and an automated system is necessary to deal with the challenges of scale that can occur. For this system to work, it must allow people to register online, check the status of their applications, and know when they are approved.
Using Drupal, Trellon delivered a comprehensive solution for managing the CityFirst application process that automates the registration process and allows cities to customize it to meet local requirements. The system was developed with enterprise support in mind, allowing Renewable Funding to centralize the collection of data and perform a number of customer service functions to support cities as they implement this important program.
Drupal was used as a turnkey solution to provide each city with it's own CityFirst site. Every city working with Renewable Funding is able to have it's own web portal for accepting CityFirst applications, each one pre-configured to provide a uniform layout and design that can be easily modified with a little CSS knowledge using Drupal's flexible template system.
Trellon developed a custom module to allow Renewable Funding to implement new instances of the CityFirst portal through a web based interface, and control various settings that provide each site with it's own unique identity and information. This module take advantage of Drupal's virtual server architecture to create new instances of the CityFirst portal based on a master template we configured as part of the project. Additionally, the module creates a unique install profile for each site, allowing administrators to pre-configure settings for each site.
The net result is a system that organically scales to meet new business needs as they arise without the need for additional programming or configuration.
No one knew much about the technical sophistication of potential users of the system, so great care was given to usability within the turnkey solution. Drupal made it simple to support the needs of potential users through it's rich text editor capabilities. Trellon implemented TinyMCE and ImageAssist to help users to edit text, insert links and images, and perform a variety of other tasks that do not require programming knowledge. The assets module is used to assist with centrally uploading and managing files, which helps with content that is intended to be printed and distributed offline. ulink was used to filter content being entered by users, in addition to other content filters provided within Drupal.
City Managers are expected to update content within the turnkey sites, and there are certain pages which should only be updated by Renewable Funding staff. Trellon configured several user groups in Drupal to allow City Managers to login and have the access for updating content they require, and used the ACL and content access modules to protect certain content from being updated by anyone other than administrators.
Customizable Registration Tracking Process
The registration process for CityFirst will have a number of common, characteristic elements, but the details for what information is collected will differ from city to city. Great care was given to the application process, to enable the system to scale and meet the challenge of ever changing requirements.
Business logic was added throughout the registration process to ensure every registrant can register once and only once. Trellon built a custom module to add name and address validation to the user registration process, ensuring users do not create multiple registrations for themselves or the property in question. This ensures cardinality within the system and eliminates duplicate applications for the same address. The registration form itself was designed to be state aware, meaning a user can leave the site to collect more information and come back to complete their application at a later time. This was done by requiring users to create accounts on the site prior to applying, and tying applications to user records.
For the registration form itself, Trellon implemented a custom content type for handling registrations. Within each turnkey site, it comes with a set of default questions asked to users which can be easily modified to handle new data collection requirements. This allows site administrators to modify the registration form to their liking, and advanced operations like field validation can be enforced through the field definitions in CCK. Trellon implemented a default set of style rules and a unique template for the registration form within the theme, allowing the visual display of the form itself to be easily modified through CSS. Together, these qualities enable Renewable Funding to support a wide array of registration options.
Tracking the state of applications is a key component of the registration solution. Drupal's workflow module was used to track the status of applications, giving city administrators and Renewable Funding the ability to change the status of registration forms while they are under review. Trellon used the actions module along with mimemail to trigger status updates to registrants as their application moves through the process, ensuring transparency within the system and reducing the overhead of supporting the system.
Some municipalities will wish to charge for the registration process. Trellon configured Ubercart for payment processing as part of the project, and configured the turnkey site so that the option can be easily removed by disabling the module. Registration fees may be tax deductible in some cases, and the system was configured to automatically generate invoices as payments are processed.
Centralized CRM and Data Architecture
Renewable Funding acts in a support role throughout the registration process, and required a centralized CRM solution to allow them to track registrations throughout each CityFirst deployment, update contact records and resolve questions regarding the use of the system. CiviCRM was used to act in this role, allowing the organization to store contact and activity records as they progress through the system. CiviCRM was configured with a custom set of fields corresponding with the data collection requirements and a number of custom activity types for title searches, registration status updates and more.
Contact information for registrants is kept within CiviCRM, and the actual registration forms are kept within Drupal. Contact information is entered into CiviCRM at the time a user registers, and can be updated at any time. As registrations are processed, city administrators and Renewable Funding admins are able to modify the status of registration forms to request additional information, send notifications and complete the application process. All interaction with registrants is simultaneously stored in CiviCRM through activity records, and users are able to see a list of activities which require action within the main CiviCRM interface.
Looking Forward with CityFIRST
No commercial alternative exists for the solution delivered for CityFirst. Using open source technology, Trellon was able to rapidly build out a custom application that leverages the strengths of an open platform without the need for extensive custom development. While Drupal and CiviCRM are an ideal solution for this phase of the project, Renewable Funding has already identified additional business needs which go beyond the current capabilities of the platform. The organization has the option of moving the centralized CRM system over to SalesForce.com at a later date, or building out the functionality they need within CiviCRM.
The time and cost savings enjoyed by Renewable Funding for the delivery of this project were significant. The total timeframe for development was just under 10 weeks, which included selection of a hosting provider, integration and user acceptance testing, and final deployment. Licensing fees and expenses for customization of a proprietary product would have exceeded the total costs for the project. The organization has the budget leverage to continue to expand the features and capabilities of the system without being locked into a proprietary platform.