San Francisco is making a collaborative effort toward civic tech in the city, as marked by a first-of-its-kind meeting on Tuesday, June 24, of 125-plus attendees, including civic tech startups, officials and companies.
Situated next to Twitter headquarters and housed in the San Francisco-based Runway Incubator, the informal get together was named the Inaugural CivicMakers Salon and organized by CivicMakers, a new group dedicated to improving democracy through innovative civic technology.
The purpose of the night — coordinated by Brian Purchia, the former spokesman for the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, and CivicMaker Founder Lawrence Grodeska, who also is director of the online petition platform Change.org — mirrored the group’s mission: gathering creative, passionate people to answer the questions, “What does real democracy look like, and how can technology help us get there?” And the lineup of civic tech players briefed gatherers on exactly that.
Among the list of speakers were San Francisco’s Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, Accela Marketing Director Allen Chen, Long Distance Voter platform Founder Debra Cleaver and Milicent Johnson from Peers, a peer-to-peer sharing advocacy group. Political candidates even took to the mic to pledge support for government tech initiatives. They included San Francisco’ s District 3 Supervisor David Chiu, running for California’s 17th Assembly District, and Christina Gagnier, running for California's 35th Congressional District.
"So much of why we're here tonight is to honor the work that we're all doing within the confines of the current system [in government], and to optimize that and continue to deliver better services,” Grodeska said.
Following the inaugural CivicMakers Salon event, attendees listed reasons for going on an online comment board.
Comments ranged from "Meet people who work on civic projects," to cultivating broader conversation, to the humorous "Free beer! And smart people."
Elaborating on his motivations, Grodeska said his desire to establish CivicMakers — which promotes similar civic tech get-togethers — was to establish another outlet for the burgeoning movement to create dialogue and collaborate. Technology will inevitably change the processes of democratic government, he said, and shaping this eventuality — government services, legislation and management — required a proactive discussion from the tech community.
Describing city civic tech initiatives, Nath highlighted San Francisco's current Entrepreneurship-in-Residence Program that started March 24 with six tech startups and will finish by the end of July. The program is a pilot that connects city departments with technologists. The goal is to leverage the industry’s entrepreneurial creativity for tools and services that benefit departments.
"We as a government have all these challenges," Nath said, "and we need their thinking in how to look at these challenges to catalyze a new [civic tech] ecosystem."
Additionally, he listed previous efforts such as the hiring of Joy Bonaguro, the city’s first digital innovation officer tasked with promoting open data initiatives, and a one-year fellowship program that inserts technologists inside municipal operations.
Representing the booming peer-to-peer sharing startups, Johnson spoke of Peers' progress at jumpstarting communications between regulators and private peer-to-peer companies. During the highly contentious dispute last year between peer-to-peer transportation services — such as Lyft and Uber — and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Peers was part of a campaign to propel tech proponents to speak with PUC officials.
The result of the dialogue, Johnson said, aided officials to formally allow the peer-to-peer transportation services. "If you just put tools in people's hands and give them a platform to amplify their voices and connect with other people," she said, "incredible and beautiful things will happen."
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.