On Sept. 13, a flurry of civic-minded technology was on display in San Jose, Calif., where a host of technologists showed their wares in the hopes of attracting government attention. At the same time, the city announced its own innovation — a direct pathway for technologists' ideas to reach City Hall.
The 3rd Annual Civic & Gov Tech Showcase, presented by Innovate Your State, brought the latest in nascent technology solutions with public-sector potential — but a live demonstration from a high-flying, anti-graffiti drone made the crowd’s enthusiasm soar.
Audience members heard 16 showcase pitch presentations on everything from making mental health data available in-app to law enforcement to helping citizens engage with their governments.
Presenters prowled the stage of the Hammer Theatre Center, asked the audience questions, showed video clips and brought PowerPoint presentations to life. But city officials had an announcement of their own in the launch of Pitch San Jose, a website that connects entrepreneurs directly with City Hall.
In one pitch, Neighborly Chief Product Officer Rodrigo Davies explained how his startup is working to democratize access to municipal bonds and transform how cities finance projects. In another, RideAlong Chief Operating Officer Meredith Hitchcock explained how her company's platform integrates with 911 dispatch systems to give officers real-time tips to work more effectively with people suffering from mental illness.
Then the Y Combinator Research lab has plans around assessing the impact of a basic monthly income trial in the U.S., an initiative that is similar to programs in Kenya and Finland, said Alex Nawar, Y Combinator's basic income research manager. Another pitch came from GreatNonprofits.org CEO Perla Ni, who discussed CitizenInsights, a program aimed at understanding and connecting with some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, and the significant reach of texting in low-income communities.
The late-morning announcement of Graffiti Removal by Automatic Drone (GRAD) as the grand prize winners of the city’s Unleash Your Geek competition stole the show as it painted over a portion of a “wall” emblazoned with graffiti.
The solution, an enhancement of a pre-existing drone, was engineered by San Jose-based husband-and-wife team Chris Farmer and Candace Marbury to paint over hard-to-reach graffiti — the kind found on freeway overpasses.
Covering up obscure graffiti was the subject of the challenge, which was first announced in May 2016. The city announced four semi-finalists from a field of 140 in January 2017, offering connections and $5,000 from partner Microsoft, plus testing and development assistance from ProspectSV Startup Support Services.
“The idea is, we identify a problem, we put out the question to our innovation community and ask them to help solve it with technology,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Farmer said the duo took advantage of San Jose’s assistance to meet with City Manager Norberto Duenas and Caltrans officials to learn first-hand the challenges they face in eradicating graffiti on bridges and other remote places.
The pair’s drone equipment is already patent-pending, but as grand prize winners, they have pilot contracts with San Jose and Caltrans, as well as an additional $5,000.
Liccardo said that given Californians' “constitutional right” to freeway driving and the inherent danger in employing staffers to repaint bridges, closing highways can be costly and difficult. As a result, GRAD may have a bright future.
“I imagine they might suspect what I suspect: When this thing works really well, we’re going to see cities throughout the country wanting to buy this product and they’re going to be billionaires and we’re all going to be famous. Or at least they’re going to be famous,” Liccardo said.
The demonstration — powering the drone, lifting off the stage and spraying a portion of the demonstration wall — went seamlessly as audience members watched closely and took cellphone photos.
Farmer said they started with an existing “high-end cinema drone” and designed an attachment that would hold and operate a standard-issue can of spray paint. But it also had to overcome the challenges of load balancing during flights, and finding a “golden channel” of clear airspace where propellers wouldn’t blow away the paint.
“Thanks to our two young boys, we raided their piggy banks and used coins to have a definitive unit of weight,” Marbury told the audience.
Farmer said the team is currently at work on what he called Platform 2 with Japanese company Prodrone, which has an office in Mountain View, enhancing a larger six-propeller drone to paint over larger graffiti more quickly. He praised the Unleash Your Geek competition as a unique motivator for their project.
“I think it’s definitely a model. I think San Jose has created something amazing, because they can take the next discreet problem that the city can address and see what people do with it," he said. "You’ve created private investment, you’ve inspired innovation. This is awesome."
In talking with Government Technology at the event, San Jose Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham elaborated on that sentiment.
“I think what events like this do is, they really bring together all that creative capacity," she said, "and we can find each other and work together."
And while past events have been held in California cities, Alexandra Klun and Caroline Bruister of Innovate Your State said that organizers also have had interest from New York and Washington, D.C.
“Innovate Your State is open to conversations with interested regions both in and outside of California who would like to bring a Civic & Gov Tech Showcase to their region,” Bruister said via email.
As for whether this event could foster the advent of technology in other regions, GreatNonprofits.org's Ni saw it differently.
“I think there’s pockets of government innovation throughout the country," she said, "and it’s events like this that help spotlight where those are.”
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.