MuniRent Uses APIs to Create Airbnb-Type Platform for City Machinery

Code for America’s Accelerator Program Class of 2014 includes online Platform startup MuniRent. Co-founders Alan Mond and Julien Vanier spoke to ProgrammableWeb about how APIs make their civic tech startup possible.


“MuniRent is an online platform that allows heavy-duty equipment rentals between local governments across the U.S.,” says CEO Mond. “There are 89,000 local governments, and the vast majority own their own HD [heavy duty] equipment. Underutilized assets can be used to generate revenues for larger agencies, and smaller agencies can benefit from a significantly discounted rental rate. It's a unique win-win situation for all parties involved.”

Equipment listed on the MuniRent website includes trench diggers, street cleaners, pavement rollers and fire engines. It was surprising to see no snowplows included, and in the main, the equipment at present covers civic capital works needs. Listings are for heavy-duty machinery rather than the sort of equipment that would be used by a city’s social or community services; things like a sound mixer or PA system and marquee tents do not appear to be part of what cities are making available to trade.

Bringing the Sharing Economy to Civic Tech

The MuniRent business model reflects two key premises of the sharing economy: platform enablement and asset monetization. Like consumer-facing startups like Airbnb, MuniRent has enabled a platform on which end customers and suppliers can create value by exchanging goods, in this case, large civic infrastructure equipment. Like Amazon Web Services, which has created revenue from its capital investment in data storage by reselling access to its web servers as a service, MuniRent’s approach turns the capital investments that local governments have made and creates a commercial opportunity to recoup capital spending by leasing out equipment that traditionally has been used only internally and stored in garages to be depreciated in value over years.

Mond explains:

Nowadays, municipalities hold some pieces of equipment for 15 to 20 years because the utilization rate is 200 to 500 hours per year (10% to 25% utilization). The equipment doesn't get used enough by a single agency, so most agencies continue using their equipment with older technology. This stretches their equipment's useful life. Equipment shared through MuniRent could increase annual utilization to 75% or higher (1,500 hours a year or higher), accelerating the end of useful life. The unexpected advantage of reaching end of useful life is that old equipment can be replaced with newer, more energy-efficient technology. The increased utilization rate also means increased revenue to fund a new piece of equipment.

APIs Make MuniRent Work

MuniRent is both a consumer and a provider of APIs.

To describe products listed on the site, MuniRent uses the FEMA API to ensure that descriptions are as complete as possible and to speed up communications when organizing equipment for disaster recovery. MuniRent CTO Vanier says:

We are very excited to use an API provided by FEMA to automatically classify equipment for emergencies. Let me explain: In case of an emergency, FEMA sets standards on how to deal with natural disasters (how many pieces of equipment are needed to deal with the crisis) and reimbursement (how much can agencies get for using their own equipment). However, instead of calling an excavator an excavator, FEMA uses equipment codes like 7-508-1079. These FEMA IDs make it hard for local emergency managers to communicate with FEMA. MuniRent compares each listing in the equipment database against FEMA types and classifies them, making finding suitable equipment in a regional emergency easier. The API is called the FEMA Resource Typing Library.

As an API provider, MuniRent is making the platform data available through the same API it used to create a mobile application version of its service. “Since we've developed a mobile application, our API is very flexible and all our endpoints could be made available to third-party developers,” says Vanier. “We currently don't have any reason to restrict third-party developers, so we're excited to see what kind of ideas are spun out using a MuniRent API.”

Third-Party Developer Opportunities

API developers keen to create products for the MuniRent ecosystem have a whole new market to target. While MuniRent itself is focused on onboarding government agencies, third-party developers could start creating products that appeal to specific subsectors of this market or to other adjacent markets, Mond suggests:

MuniRent is focused on all levels of government, from small local governments like cities, townships and school districts to large agencies like counties, departments of transportation and other state agencies. We are focusing on government agencies right now, but we would entertain the idea of exploring other markets in the future.

MuniRent is a participant in this year’s Code for America Accelerator initiative. This is a four-month program supported by Google for Entrepreneurs, the Passport Foundation and the Ron Conway Family Foundation, with advisers including Tim O’Reilly and Ron Bouganim. It provides the selected startups (this year’s class has five businesses) each with funding of $25,000, training and mentorship, and access to Code for America’s extensive government network to navigate the government technology ecosystem. Accelerator companies also present at the Code for America Summit in September, an annual gathering of more than 800 civic technology leaders from over 80 cities.

ProgrammableWeb’s series on how Code for America Accelerator startups are using APIs in their business models continues for the rest of this week.

Be sure to read the next Government article: Trailhead Labs Applies OpenTrails Data Standards to Create API and Platform