To harvest startup talent, cities don't have to be tech Meccas — but a partnership with one certainly helps.
On Sept. 16, the California cities of Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento will join San Francisco in showcasing the new digital tools and services that materialized during the first regional Startup in Residence program (STiR) that brought in 14 tech startups for 16 weeks.
The startups unleashed their diverse skill sets on a host of civic maladies, devising solutions for foster care, law enforcement, city finances and preschool, to name a few, and coordinating with appropriate city departments and the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation.
If results are like San Francisco’s in-house pilot in 2014, the cities are apt to gain valuable tools and resources for citizens, while the startups — eager to expand their commercial footprints — will earn persuasive use cases and government supporters to scale into the gov tech market.
SF STiR Partners, Projects
Six of the 14 startups will be working on specific challenges in San Francisco:
Beyond STiR’s more apparent benefits, implications suggest the program may accomplish something greater for both San Francisco and its fellow city participants.
In San Francisco, STiR is amplifying the city’s role as both an influencer and pioneer in 21st-century technology.
With the rise of the digital revolution, cities nationwide have looked at San Francisco as model for modernization. When the sharing economy ignited a firestorm of regulatory debate around Airbnb and Uber, San Francisco’s policies were used as municipal starting points; the city’s open data work has set benchmarks for transparency and decision-making; and its collaborations with local startups and civic tech groups like Code for America have set precedents for innovation.
STiR builds on this influence by serving as a mechanism for regional gov tech research and development. Only last July, at the opening of the city’s innovation lab SuperPublic — an endeavor supported by the General Services Administration — did San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee elaborate on the strategy to advance civic efforts through local, regional, state and even federal collaboration.
“While it seems voluntary and innovative to do it now, we’re actually creating the conditions for the private sector, for the public sector, for academia, for those that are in government that want to innovate,” Lee said at the SuperPublic launch event. “We’re trying to create the conditions now so there is a lot more opportunity in the future to be successful.”
And this inclusive approach served as the impetus to open up the STiR program, not only to outside cities, but other contributors as well, said Jeremy Goldberg, the director of innovation partnerships and part of STiR’s leadership team.
“This year we leveled up our game and really strove to make it a unique and high-quality experience for our partners,” Goldberg said. “We brought in thought leaders from across sectors; developed a partnership with Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center; and leveraged technology to reach a wider audience — such as by working with SFGovTV.”
Inside the program, San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, who heads up the SF Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation, said the program has already impacted how the city procures and deploys technology.
“After our first year of STiR, we learned that navigating the procurement process [of the program] would be a bigger challenge than we anticipated for both startups and government departments,” Nath said. “From this experience, we replaced our application form with a streamlined RFP that took startups less than an hour to complete and government departments only days to draft.”
Dubbed “RFP Bus,” the STiR application is a procurement vehicle that carries the 17 RFPs necessary to apply for the program in a single form. San Francisco is testing how it might adapt the RFP Bus to procure future contracts with progressive startups.
New for this year is the User-Testing Exchange, where startups collect user feedback across departments in all four cities, Nath and Goldberg said, and San Francisco’s Department of Technology (DT) has taken the lead on hosting a set of skill-sharing meet-ups, or “Skillshares,” where STiR startups and DT staff offer informal presentations on gov tech topics.
As in the initial pilot, six startups are working on a variety of projects in San Francisco that are aimed at improving foster care, vehicle procurement, property analysis, disaster recovery, recreation facility use and volunteer management during emergencies.
Northeast of the Bay Area in West Sacramento, a city of about 50,000 residents, STiR has elicited positive praise from Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who said the endeavor has re-energized commitments to agile methods and data analysis. In 2015, West Sacramento finished Code for America’s fellowship program, which brings technologists in for a year to create digital solutions to government challenges. Cabaldon said the experience inspired departments to fundamentally rethink workflows and reevaluate their routines.
“With STiR, we wanted to take it up a level internally, but also blur the lines between government and startups in order to bring innovation and technology to our core services and processes,” Cabaldon said.
West Sacramento STiR Partners, ProjectsThree of the 14 startups will be working on specific challenges in West Sacramento:
RAXAR TECHNOLOGY CORP. is working with the West Sacramento Fire Department to build a platform that would allow fire department responders to report on emergencies and incidents from the field.
MOSAIQQ is working with the West Sacramento Police Department to craft a digital solution for police to manage, analyze, record and report on cases in real time and in the field.
APPLEDORE is working with the West Sacramento Police Department to create a mobile app that would assist officers in screening homeless citizens, and would then pair them with available social service resources.
This has resulted in a joint venture between startups and West Sacramento’s police and fire departments to create data solutions for analyzing and reporting incidents, and a screening tool for police to connect homeless residents with social services.
“So much of our need in this space has been about doing a better job of sensing and making sense of the physical environments in which police and firefighters are working,” Cabaldon said. “This work is very much at the street level where our own employees are getting insights into different ways of doing business in government.”
And for the gov tech startups themselves, there are a number of advantages to this approach of gaining entry into a market that is often difficult to breach. At the end of the program, cities may opt to procure their startups’ technologies. In the case of West Sacramento, the mayor said this decision will be made based on the amount of value the startups can generate for citizens, and the gains in revenues and cost savings.
“We don’t make a commitment at the beginning of STiR that we will become a customer of any of these particular products," Cabaldon said, “but the likelihood is maximized by the fact that most of these have been built based on a very deep understanding of our own needs and processes, pain points and opportunities.”
Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, the city of Oakland has been an equally active participant, incorporating STiR within its Digital Front Door initiative (DFD). Launched in 2014 with help from Code for America, Oakland created the program as a means to prioritize and develop valuable services for residents. Some of the factors in this analysis included city website traffic, user research and city objectives. In the case of STiR, Oakland prioritized three areas: police transparency, human services and housing.
As far as police transparency, Bayes Impact has engineered a dashboard for police data sets — something the startup also has worked on for the California Department of Justice, said Marisa Raya, Oakland’s special projects and workforce development coordinator.
And in the area of human services, the startup Preschool2me developed a platform for parents to enroll their children in Head Start, a child development program serving young children in low-income families.
Oakland STiR Partners, ProjectsTwo of the 14 startups will be working on specific challenges in Oakland:
BAYES IMPACT is working with the Oakland Police Department to create an analytics solution to assess highly demanded information and services from the police department.
PRESCHOOL2ME is assisting Oakland Human Services Department to create software to support Head Start outreach, enrollment and administration.
Despite receiving applicants from startups to partner on housing issues, nothing in that area has materialized due to the fact that Oakland sought a solution that dealt with managing paperwork tied to rent control, a policy measure few cities have adopted to the level Oakland has in recent years.
With Silicon Valley to its south, San Francisco to its West and tech companies like Uber moving into its downtown, Oakland has become a bedroom community for many companies and startups. So to protect its lower-income residents from displacement, the city has had to enact a number of strict rent control measures to reduce effects of gentrification and stabilize living costs.
While a boon to residents, the problem with this from a startup's perspective is that no matter how effective their solution might be, it isn’t scalable to a larger market of potential city customers.
“I thought that was an interesting aside to the program,” Maya said. “It works if you have a challenge a lot of other cities are facing — so a startup can build a product with you at low cost and sell it to other cities. But in this case, since not a lot of cities have rent control, the startup we originally worked with saw this as a limited market.”
Even so, Raya said the STiR experience overall was incredibly positive.
In San Leandro, a city known for its advanced manufacturing zones and industrial facilities, officials said that STiR opened an opportunity to not only engage startups, but also seed innovation and culture change.
San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta said she didn’t know what to expect when she introduced the opportunity to departments. The city has always had strong commitments to citizen services and has supported a number of efforts to innovate local manufacturing. With respect to civic tech, however, Acosta said such initiatives are relatively new.
Still, she discovered departments were open to the idea, and as the program progressed, even voiced strong support.
San Leandro STiR Partners, Projects
Three of the 14 startups will be working on specific challenges in San Leandro:
LOTADATA is providing an analytics app and user ID card that lets San Leandro’s Recreation and Human Services Department staff visualize and track usage patterns for recreational facilities. Leadership officials plan to use the analysis to optimize and improve services.
“I think it’s the first step in really getting the entire city to accept innovation in a way that they perhaps haven’t thought of before,” Acosta said.
As for innovations, startups fashioned a financial management app for the IT department to appropriate funding and developed a platform for San Leandro’s Recreation and Human Services Department to measure facility usage and visualize the resulting data.
“Our recreation department provides all sorts of programming. We have swimming pools, parks, two major community centers, and no data about who uses them, what they like to do there, what they don’t like to do, whether the programs are working, who attends them …,” Acosta said. “Now we have data to understand which classes were successful, which classes were not, and then find out what people want.”
A third solution comes from SyncFab, a San Leandro-based makerspace that teamed up with the San Leandro Department of Community and Business Development to create a platform for Bay Area companies to make purchases from San Leandro’s large- and small-scale manufacturers.
As a hub for industrial goods serving companies like Tesla and others, Acosta said the goal is to drive economic development in the city through partnership and shared strategies — values that the startup program embraces.
“Cities can no longer isolate themselves and draft their own economic development strategies that are isolated from the region,” Acosta said. “We share homeless problems, we share transportation problems and we sure as heck share cost-of-living problems, so the only way we’re going to solve all of these problems is together.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.