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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Looking For City Contracts? Pittsburgh's 'Beacon' Has You Covered

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA News

Three technologists worked with city departments for almost a year to reform the way the city buys goods and services like fire trucks and office supplies – a process known as procurement.

Laura Meixell, analytics and strategy manager for the city's open data program, said there used to be a page buried in the city’s website where businesses could find contract openings.

The requests weren't categorized, and vendors would have to check back if there was a new post, she said.

The city’s strategy to fix the problem is a free online service called Beacon. Since the website launched in September, more than 350 businesses have registered for notifications when the city publishes relevant opportunities for their companies. It’s also a way for the city to find more options, Meixell said. 

Mayor Bill Peduto said the tool can provide transparency in the complicated process.

“You fund the campaign and then your company gets the contract," he said. "Procurement ... in government is done in shadows; the contracts (are) written for specific companies.”

Previously, different departments used different protocols for how to purchase goods and services, he said. They never centralized around management and budget offices, let alone followed policies based on national norms.

It was a mess, Peduto said.

Meixell cited a recent example when the city needed to hire a firm to keep recreation and senior centers clean. They sent out three requests and each time got, at most, one bid. With Beacon, Meixell said the city reached far more contenders, eventually drawing 16 combined bids.

The developers, three Code for America fellows brought in through the national nonprofit, have worked with the city since February funded by $100,000 from the city and $330,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The trio also developed Scout, a tool for city staff to quickly identify and subscribe to contracts that are currently in place, and Conductor, which better explains the re-bid and contract renewal process.

“For example, if you are a city employee and you are looking to buy medical supplies in bulk, you can find businesses currently on contract with the city to do so in a matter of seconds,” developer Patrick Hammons said.

Fellows Hammons, Shelly Ni and Ben Smithgall are working with Pittsburgh officials through the end of November.