Berlin: an international, cosmopolitan city
Nicolas moved to Germany for an 8-month internship and eventually decided to make Berlin his home after seeing how outgoing and friendly the city was. Since Germany is in the EU, it gave him an entirely new continent to explore with different cultures just a short flight away.
A lot of expats feel the same way about Berlin since it has its own international culture mixed with local culture while also being at the same time an important historical location which can be seen in books like Alexanderplatz by Döblin that describes the Berlin that existed after the First World War or Das Leben ist eine Karawansarei from Özdamar which describes moving from Turkey to Berlin after World War Two as a guest worker and more modern authors like Überseezungen from Tawada who still regularly does readings from her books that detail her experiences immigrating to Germany.
Berlin is unique for this reason, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a group of people who each come from different countries around the world and have significantly different backgrounds.
What is All About Berlin?
With everyone coming from different backgrounds, it also means that there is a lot of confusion around the German system, which tends to be pretty heavy in terms of bureaucracy. Since Nicolas has lived in Berlin for most of his adult life, he not only had to go through the experience of adapting to a new culture and the new customs that come with it, but he also had the ability to share his experience with others.
Even though Berlin is an amazing city to live in that offers people great benefits and protections compared to other countries, there are still quite a few problems that tend to stay relatively consistent that each person moving here has to face.
This is where All About Berlin comes in. After going through the difficult process of trying to convert his Canadian driver’s license to the German equivalent, Nicolas wrote about his experience and let others know what you need to watch out for, how long the waiting times are, and how (for Berlin standards) it’s all completely normal for the system in place.
While Nicolas does admit that he wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of creating these guides, he’s still able to expand and help a large number of people.
Experience sharing to support others adapting to life in Germany
While many tend to think of Berlin as an international paradise, the city is still grounded in German culture and processes. We’ve all heard people mention their friends who have spent years in Berlin and never learned German, but it makes figuring out how to navigate the system they live in pretty difficult, which is where experience sharing can help.
Although Nicolas told us that he isn’t able to make things go faster or create new digital tools (he tried, though), it helps if people are just shown what to expect and what others have also experienced to ease their minds.
Most German processes tend to resemble each other as well since they’re based on German culture. So, while it took him quite some time to figure out which documents he needed for the driver’s license, how to book an appointment, and how long to wait, the same could be said about other processes like getting a tax ID.
What are the general characteristics of German bureaucracy?
Appointments are notoriously difficult to find. Whether you need one for your tax ID, registration, visa, or driver’s license – you’re going to need to wait by your computer, press refresh, and hope that an appointment appears near enough to you that you won’t be late.
Now that covid restrictions are being lifted, the old method of being able to wait for an appointment in the waiting room could also be possible again. Back before 2020, a lot of people would just sit in the waiting room after getting a ticket to see if someone wouldn’t show up for their appointment.
And, although Nicolas was writing about these problems in 2017, a quick look online will show that the same problems exist 5 years later while we’re writing this – only with the added difficulty that covid has brought with it.
Can digitization be the answer?
If you’re new in Berlin, then you probably haven’t heard of the dirty word digitization before. It’s a huge political topic that spans from schools and universities to restaurants and local stores. The Germans, for whatever reason, have a difficult time with digitization.
This is one of the reasons why progress is so slow to happen. Speaking with Nicolas on his thoughts, he mentioned that there were a few very simple ways to reduce the time spent on, frankly, needless tasks. He gave us the example of registering for your apartment:
“What I have seen from this in Berlin is that they’re just going to take a paper form and put it online and call it digital. I don’t see this design thinking where they would just stop and pay attention to how the people are interacting with their services, or where people are struggling or where there are inefficiencies. The Anmeldung is a great example because you have a digital form that you download, fill out, and then take it to a person who then types up everything that you filled into the form. And this is maybe 60% of your Anmeldung appointment. Just one person typing the information back into the computer, and I read a few stories about the mistakes that have been made with the wrong name registered. So, I see it as a very unimaginative way of doing things. Whereas in other fields, you would fill in that information online, and you would get a digital code where the person at the appointment already has all of your information ready and would just focus on the ID verification; that would be a very easy way to process more people. Then, at this point, it would just take 2 or 3 minutes to verify. You might not need an appointment at all. Just show up, give your number and documents, and be done. We set a system like that up in a matter of months to get people vaccinated, it’s just a QR code, they know who you are, and they send you to get vaccinated. I didn’t measure it, but in my last vaccine, it took about 30 seconds of checking documents.”
He continued to tell us that there were a lot of things as citizens that we probably didn’t see going on in the background, but after facing the same problems for over 5 years, the only real solution that the government seems to think valid is hiring more people.
The problem with this thinking is that there are over 3.6 million people living in the city, and 20 more people won’t compensate for how fast the population is increasing. It’s the same for apartments – just building a few new apartments isn’t going to compensate when thousands of people are arriving each month to make Berlin their home.
How is All About Berlin adapting to new changes?
While Nicolas hasn’t gone through every Berlin experience, there is to have – like being a student or having a baby, his guides encompass a large number of experiences that other people would have. He made the website his full-time job in 2019 and regularly updates backlinks and data to make sure that the information he’s providing is accurate.
Since he’s currently the only person maintaining the website, this means that he doesn’t have a lot of time for additional guides that would add to his list of backlinks and articles to check. Instead, he wants to turn to finer points like creating tools to help people get quick information by typing in a few details. For example, what does a €50k salary look like in Berlin? How to negotiate for more in a country you’ve never been to before?
By creating these tools, he’ll only need to update the logic once per year to ensure that everything is accurate for the people using them instead of managing hundreds of articles to make sure their information is up-to-date. The goal is to add tools that can simplify complex information while maintaining the most needed articles (about registration, tax ID, etc.).
A tool to make finding appointments easier
In January, Nicolas created a tool that allowed people to see appointments for registering apartments throughout Berlin, but it was blocked by the German government only a few days after it was created.
The tool is a bot that would send a request every 30 seconds to find more appointments. The first problem he encountered was that the website allowed for the first refresh quickly and then added on the next appointment batch to refresh after 2 to 3 minutes with no workaround.
He emailed the government and the company responsible for the page to see if he would be able to keep the tool up and got a response for a meeting in May with the team that manages the website. He was allowed to reactivate his tool, but it’s currently only able to check every three minutes for appointments.
Eventually, he’s hoping to work with Berlin.de team to develop a faster, more efficient tool directly on their website to help improve the functionality of digital appointment booking for everyone searching for an appointment.
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