Translating Policy into Technology

MA Dept of Public Utilities

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) oversees utility companies and regulates bus, taxi, moving companies, and transportation network company safety in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Challenge

In August of 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill giving the DPU regulatory authority over transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft. The bill required the TNCs’ ~70,000 drivers to undergo a full state Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) background check. The problem? The DPU's existing background check system typically took eight weeks to conduct a check. There was no way to process all of the necessary information in a timely manner.

The DPU needed to build an accurate, comprehensive, fast-performing background check system that could integrate with multiple databases and APIs—and they needed to build it fast. Such a system had never been built before, and the need presented multiple challenges. The DPU needed to integrate directly with Uber and Lyft's APIs, and it also needed to integrate with eight state and federal databases, including the Massachusetts RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles), FBI, Bureau of Probation, and Massachusetts Judicial systems. Some of these databases were quite old and weren't built to pull data quickly. Plus, the DPU engineering team had to navigate multiple technical decisions that would hold up if appealed.

The Solution

The DPU partnered with Gnar to build a custom background check system from scratch.

Within six months, we built a system that conducts background checks in real-time. Our system pulls information from various databases, then funnels that information into a dashboard that allows for quick decision-making. Designed to enable real-time checks and apply consistent rules to drivers, our system features an auto-approver that rejects or approves drivers automatically when certain parameters are met and allows for manual review when further criteria are required. Once drivers are approved, they receive an electronically-delivered driver clearance certificate issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Our system runs on two platforms: the BRC Reviewer Platform and the Background Check Broker. The Reviewer Platform is an automated workflow application that:

  • Aggregates and displays which applicants' background checks have passed and which need review
  • Highlights returned record content to facilitate review by compliance officers
  • Adds comments to applicants' reviews and enables access to BRC history logs if applicable
  • Sends background check results and decisions to the applicant electronically
  • Enables compliance officers to review, accept, or deny appeal requests and request and review additional materials
  • Generates reports to understand aggregated application process flow, throughput, and denial reasons.

The Background Check Broker provides a clean API to facilitate portal integrations with other databases. It is incorporated into the BRC Review Platform, and it routes applicant information to the various APIs and returns their results.

Our solution is scalable, so in the future it can accommodate integrations with new transportation network companies and databases and can support a growing number of driver applicants.

The Results

Gnar built a robust system the DPU could count on within 6 months of starting the project. The department realized immediate benefits in time-savings and background check accuracy: it typically takes eight weeks to conduct a background check, but we built a system that provides answers in real-time.

Ultimately, we built a public safety application, and the stakes couldn't have been higher. Moreover, we knew we needed the highest levels of security in order to maintain the confidentiality of hundreds of thousands of driver applicants.

As the DPU’s technical team, we worked with the department to be product owners and helped them define detailed requirements, so they could quickly distill complex information from multiple sources and make data-driven decisions that would hold up if appealed by a denied driver. The team is now empowered to make decisions more quickly and accurately.

As a result of our system, the DPU was able to identify over 8,000 Uber and Lyft drivers who did not meet the requirements for driving in the state. Our system has helped the DPU do its job—and it helps keep Massachusetts safe.

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