OutSystemsDev Zone

How I Built a Texting App and Connected to a Government Database – in 24 Hours

I like hackathons. And one of the main reasons I like them is the limited time period the organizers enforce. I take particular satisfaction in delivering production quality and relatively large apps in less than 24 hours. I can do this because a large portion of the work is done with the help of a RAD tool – OutSystems Platform.

This hackathon was called “Govathon.” The City of Atlanta brought together government officials with problems and developers that could craft solutions to these problems. I was one of these developers. Following is my timeline with some short videos showing how I built the app.


Friday, 7:00 pm — Getting started

The organizers of Govathon took 30 minutes to present their challenges to the nine teams. Teams assembled themselves around one or several similar ideas. I wanted to pick a project that was useful and would have a chance of being used by the city of Atlanta, and I got intrigued by what Angela Patrick from the building permits office had to say.

Friday, 8:30 pm — A mobile app to access government data

Solving the problem Angela defined would lead to better customer service. People typically call the office to get an updated status on their building permits. There is a web portal but users could not find it easily and were often working at remote locations during the day. Angela wanted a mobile app so people could check their status without having to call the office.
OutSystems has a fully functional version of their platform in the cloud that is great for personal projects. It is free forever and as long as you don’t need enterprise grade features it is more than enough. I registered and had my development environment up and running in minutes.

Friday, 9:00 pm — Integrating with Excel

I was given an Excel document with the 60,000 building permits from the last few years, and I quickly created a database inside OutSystems Platform that could hold all the data.

Friday, 9:45 pm — The first mobile UI

Based on the data, I quickly scaffolded an initial prototype of the user interface using the standard ‘London theme’ that comes with OutSystems Platform.

Friday, 10:30 pm — Going home to sleep


Saturday, 8:30 am Multichannel apps: Developing a text interface with Twilio

While getting dressed, I thought about the real-use scenario of this app. Adoption rates of mobile apps are ridiculously low if the real usage scenario is misunderstood. I wondered if a texting interface to query the database would yield better adoption rates. Twilio to the rescue!

govathon-screenshot-mobile device Twilio is a telephony service, that among other things, enables apps to send and receive text messages. I integrated Twilio with my app using the REST capabilities of OutSystems Platform.

Saturday, 9:30 am — Twilio integration using a service callback

This sophisticated integration was made simple with OutSystems Platform. I created a Twilio account, which gives me a phone number. Any text message sent to that phone number generates a callback into my app. Check out how fast I did it.

Saturday, 10:00 am — Publishing and running the app

This is how it works. Send a text message (SMS) to the phone number, then the app fetches the data from the database and sends the result back by text.

Saturday, 10:30 am — Live integration with the permit database service

I was done. I headed down to Atlanta Workforce Development headquarters and had some time before I was to demo and present my app at 3:00. But I could not resist some enhancements! The permit database is supported by Accela, and they have a great public REST API. Mark Headd was nice enough to send me a couple of request/response examples that I fed into OutSystems Platform. Ten minutes later, I was able to connect my texting app to the live data of building permits of Atlanta.

Saturday, 3:00 pm — Winning!

Govathon-1st-PlaceEloisa Klementich, co-founder of Govathon, announced the winners. Citing innovation and growth as a primary objective of the City, she was pleased to name my Building Permitting app as the winner of the fourth annual Govathon!

Now residents and businesses can check the status of their building permit applications in real time!


RAD platforms work. OutSystems Platform allowed me to deliver a working SMS app with live integration in less than 24 hours – with some sleep included 🙂



About the author

Pedro Queirós

Customer success is Pedro’s number one priority. With an interest in User Experience and a developer background, he is able to be both creative and pragmatic, producing efficient solutions for the challenges he's faced with.

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