SAN FRANCISCO — Startup entrepreneurs and public servants from several cities in Northern California presented tech projects at the Startup in Residence Demo Day 2017 on Sept. 29, all of which were aimed at making government more efficient and better able to serve constituents.
During five-minute pitches, the presenters laid out a host of innovative solutions, ranging from touchscreen kiosks that guide citizens through San Francisco’s city hall to a personalized dashboard that allows visitors to customize their own experiences on San Leandro’s city website. Essentially, the third class of participants in the Startup in Residence program once again did what the initiative was created to do: formed private and public partnerships that found innovative ways to overcome long-standing governmental problems.
“This program was developed around a really simple idea that the best way to solve challenge is by working together,” said San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, who introduced the demos.
The Startup in Residence (STiR) program was created in San Francisco in 2014, starting off as exclusive to that city. After a year away in 2015, the program returned and expanded to also include three other Northern California cities: Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento. The program is currently in the process of expanding throughout North America, with organizers saying they are working to establish a final list of participants for next year’s class.
To this point, STiR has been a program run almost entirely by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, with additional support from the other three participant cities. To give it a national scope, the program will largely be led moving forward by City Innovate Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to guide local government in creating user-centered tech products. San Francisco officials have said they expect the innovation team in the city to remain heavily involved, as they still have federal funding, a partnership with the U.S. State Department and other resources to contribute.
Facilitating easier collaboration between the public sector and tech startups has long been a challenge with no easy answers, but STiR continues to serve as an encouraging sign that there are ways to make it happen. In its short lifetime, the program has launched dozens of prototypes that aspire to lower costs, enhance productivity and just generally improve the delivery of governmental services to citizens.
The problems that the projects tackle are often somewhat simple in scope, things like automating application processes or creating centralized locations for civic data. Many governments, however, are so consumed with the day-to-day business of running a city that they don’t have the time to focus on modernization and innovating. Taking chances on unproven ideas — which is central to any and all tech startups — is not something any city is able to do regularly, and instead must limit their investments to projects that will almost certainly work.
San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter said as much in remarks before the presentation, noting that she’s attended smart city conferences around the world and returned to realize that the time of civic staff is always at a premium and rarely available to invest in a modern infrastructure idea she saw in action in China. Participating in the STiR program, however, brings in private tech startup companies to put cutting-edge ideas into practice with a bit of guidance and input from busy public servants.
“This program promotes the technology we all yearn for,” Cutter said.
As STiR prepares to open for the rest of the country, San Leandro should serve as somewhat of a best-case scenario for applicants: an aging and once-industrial city that is in the process of reinventing itself as a tech hub, ready and primed to create bridges between its municipal government and the startup tech companies that have begun to proliferate there.
“San Leandro is a 161-year-old startup, so we’re a little older than the others, but we are undergoing a transformation,” said Tony Batalla, head of IT for the city and one of the public servant participants.
The full list of demos included the following:
APPCityLife worked with West Sacramento’s Economic Development and Housing Department to develop an online tool that estimates permit and development fees, taking into account the parameters of conceptual development projects.
BEXI worked with the San Leandro Library System on a mobile-driven tool that encourages residents to interact more with the city’s historic sites, artistic offerings and natural assets.
Civic Studio worked with the San Francisco Arts Commission to digitize its weekly space assignment lottery process for local street artists, which basically means updating the way that the city tells which artists where they can perform and sell their work. The current process was created in 1970, and it shows. Artists who want a space in San Francisco on any given day show up to an organizing process at 6 a.m., fill out a sheet of paper, and watch as city officials draw those papers from a bucket. What Civic Studio has done is make it so the entire process is digital. It’s also worked to map street artist locations and to provide real-time notifications.
iCarol and SkyClutch worked with San Francisco’s Our Children Our Families Council to create a one-stop Web portal and comprehensive digital service directory complete with all publicly funded and administered services for youth and their families, a list that includes health and human services, child care, housing, health care and legal aid. This project is all about taking the information that governments put on their websites, which is often dense, and centralizing it in a way that makes it easy for visitors to find what they need.
MCT Technology worked with the San Francisco Human Services Agency Office of Early Care and Education to develop an easy-to-use technology tool to help families get access to high-quality child care.
Numina worked with San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department to develop a scalable, portable technology that will quantify a good deal of physical information about one of America’s most topographically unique park systems. San Francisco has 220 parks spread throughout 4,100 acres and three counties. Numina has created a system of sensors that can accurately determine how many people are using these parks and when.
UrbanSim, one of the highlights of the demos, worked with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to design software that allows staff to quickly evaluate a land parcel or a building’s suitability for affordable housing development, a timely project given the ongoing nature of San Francisco’s housing crisis. UrbanSim created a tool called Penciler, which analyzes in a matter of minutes if it would feasible for the city to turn a given property into affordable housing. Officials from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development expect to be adding 1,500 units of affordable housing to the city each year for the foreseeable future, and with UrbanSim’s algorithm driven platform, that work will be greatly expedited and more efficient.
Yeti worked with the San Francisco Office of Contract Administration and Committee on Information Technology to develop a chatbot application that guides city employees through procurement. Robert Henning, of San Francisco’s Office of Contract Administration, described how much time he and his team spend answering internal questions about procurement, saying, “We get inundated with questions from city employees about procurement, and a lot of them are very repetitive. Every time someone ask me about RFPs, a small part of my soul dies.” Yeti’s work seeks to save Henning’s soul by redirecting those questions to an internal chatbot called PAIGE, or Procurement Answers and Information Guided Experience. One thing that’s unique about this project is that the chatbot is internal; a number of municipal governments have moved to embrace public-facing chatbot applications. Yeti has also developed a giant touchscreen kiosk to guide visitors through San Francisco city hall, while keeping the work aesthetically consistent with the 100-year-old building. The end result is something that looks like a giant iPhone framed in an art museum.
YoGov worked with San Leandro’s Information Technology Department to create an integrated and personalized digital experience that would allow residents to create and manage their profile information and preferences for city communications and services. It essentially works the same way your Amazon profile does, in that it uses your previous history, preferences and demographics to create a customized user experience for you. This should prove especially useful on government websites, which are infamous for being labyrinthine and dense with information from dozens of city agencies.