SXSW 2017: Tech Idea for Preventing Fatal Police Interactions Wins Shark Tank-Like Competition

The first-place prize of $10,000 went to RideAlong, a digital tool meant to facilitate safer interactions between police and people with mental illness.

by J.B. Wogan / March 13, 2017
Meredith Hitchcock, a co-founder of RideAlong, standing with some of the judges. David Kidd

AUSTIN, TEXAS — On the third day of Civic I/O, the government and policy sessions at South by Southwest (SXSW), mayors assumed the role of “Shark Tank” investors.

The mayors of Denver; Orlando, Fla.; and West Sacramento, Calif., joined a panel of tech entrepreneurs to judge startups' proposals for business ideas that help solve a civic problem.

The first-place prize of $10,000 went to RideAlong, a digital tool meant to facilitate safer interactions between police and people with mental illness. While about 3 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a severe mental illness, they make up a quarter to one-half of all fatal law enforcement encounters, according to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center. The founders of RideAlong hope to prevent such tragic incidents by equipping police with information that will ultimately divert people experiencing a mental health crisis away from the criminal justice system and instead into treatment and other support services.

The RideAlong system is already being piloted in Seattle, where police can look up a name or address and view an easy-to-read profile of an individual. The tool automatically collects and organizes helpful information from family members, social service providers and other government agencies. Officers in Seattle already receive a PDF with similar information in their email while they’re driving, but they sometimes struggle to find and read it before they arrive on scene.

Meredith Hitchcock, a co-founder of RideAlong, began building the tool as a one-year Code for America fellow in Seattle. Before developing it, she and two other fellows spent a month studying police interactions with citizens who have a mental illness. They rode along with police, spoke to social service case managers and interviewed individuals with mental illness.

“We were seeing this was a problem across the nation,” she says.

And their research in the field paid off.

“RideAlong had such a clarity of understanding of how the day-to-day process works that they’re trying to solve,” says West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, one of the judges for the competition. “It was impressive in its fidelity to what the needs are. It was clear that it wasn’t a technology play first.”

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon (David Kidd)

All seven of the presenting startups received at least $1,000. RoadBotics, a smartphone app that turns cars, trucks and bikes into mobile sensors that detect road features, such as potholes, received $5,000. Smarter Sorting, a company that helps cities sort through household chemical waste and allows for the reuse of some chemicals currently being incinerated, won $2,500.

All of the presenters identified pressing problems in cities, from slow and inefficient paper-based government processes to the difficulty that low-income residents face communicating with their government. The judges probed them on the scalability of their products, how they planned to make money and whether their proposals would duplicate existing services in the public or private sector.

Amazon Web Services sponsored the competition and put up the prize money. In addition to the mayors, the panel of judges included Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and Nicole Neditch, the senior director for community engagement at Code for America.

Hitchcock says pitching to mayors was slightly different than her earlier efforts to win over first responders and the tech startup community.

“First responders are interested in the operation, what’s going to be involved to get this set up, who’s going to manage content, what’s the benefit on the day-to-day basis,” she says. “The mayors were looking much more at, what’s the bigger-term vision, how do we use this to make smarter cities, how do we offer more strategic and smarter first responders?”

This story was originally published by Governing.