San Francisco's Super Bowl 50 Tech Upgrades Produce Stronger Long-Term Infrastructure for Citizens

The city recently partnered with transportation app Waze and expanded its Wi-Fi coverage — which imparts to people the idea that they’re a piece of a modern and connected society.

by / February 4, 2016

As any city hosting a major event would, the San Francisco Bay Area sees hosting Super Bowl 50 as a chance to show off what makes the city great. To that end, San Francisco has branded itself as Super Bowl City and opened Market Street as a family-friendly fan village full of activities and local fare. More than 1 million people are expected to visit during the week, generating income for businesses and raising the city’s profile as another more than 100 million people are expected to watch football’s biggest game of the year from afar.

Super Bowl week also coincides with two major tech announcements for the city — a new data sharing partnership with traffic monitoring service Waze, and an expansion of #SFWiFi, a free Wi-Fi network that has crept across the city since its initial launch in 2013. San Francisco CIO Miguel Gamiño said the Super Bowl tech announcements afford the city a chance to show off their tech, stress test it against a large influx of visitors, and ultimately produce a stronger infrastructure for citizens in the long-term.

The Waze partnership, announced Jan. 28 by the office of Mayor Edwin Lee, establishes a two-way data-sharing channel between the city and the popular traffic monitoring app. Waze will assist the city by publishing free, anonymous user data on the city’s open data portal. The city can use this data to re-gear its transportation management during events and road closures, and evaluate its overall transportation strategy. The city will share its data with Waze every two weeks in alignment with its street closure approval process. Gamiño’s office also reported plans to have Waze share pothole reports with the city in real-time via the city’s Open311 API. San Francisco is now conducting cross-agency workshops to find effective uses of the agreement.

On the whole, Gamiño said the real intent with this partnership was in getting people around — in making multi-modal options more relevant, obvious and appealing. And Mayor Lee’s ultimate goal, he said, is to drive public safety improvements, bringing traffic and pedestrian fatalities to zero, and this partnership is helping the city to head in that direction.

The Wi-Fi expansion, established through partnerships with Extreme Networks and Cisco Systems, is intended to provide wireless broadband connectivity to Super Bowl tourists around the stadium area and on Market Street before, during and after the event. Service was also expanded to five San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) stations along Market Street: Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center and Van Ness.

The city hosts a few big events each year, such as the World Series Parade in 2014, the annual San Francisco Pride Parade, and Bay to Breakers, an annual race celebrating San Francisco’s unique character that dates back to 1912. But the Super Bowl is different, Gamiño said, because the Market Street event lasts an entire week, giving his technical staff a chance to compare different network architectures and see what works best.

“It’d be almost impossible for me to replicate that with a test case,” Gamiño said. “I can’t invite a million people to come down to San Francisco and try my network.”

In an age of mobile devices, some question the relevance of Wi-Fi. But Gamiño explained that Wi-Fi is useful on several practical levels — and that it’s also a beacon of civilization. The practical reasons for building Wi-Fi, and why Gamiño said San Francisco is building out its Wi-Fi, include:

  • When there are huge concentrated crowds, Wi-Fi can unload demand on LTE networks.
  • Businesses using merchant services like Square gain support from stronger city-supported Wi-Fi.
  • Citizens who don’t pay for unlimited data plans can save money on their bill by using the city’s Wi-Fi.

For Gamiño, however, it's more about the broader view: imparting to people the idea that they’re a piece of a modern and connected society. And numbering the practical uses of Wi-Fi is to miss the point a little bit, Gamiño noted. Infrastructure is so inherently valuable that it doesn’t need much justification.

In the game of Chess, there’s a saying that “the threat is stronger than the execution.” This means a player can often have greater influence over the course of the game by imposing threats with his pieces rather than carrying those threats out, because once a plan has been executed, some of the power previously held by the threatening player is extinguished. This is the value of infrastructure. Today’s technical applications across Wi-Fi may be unremarkable in some instances, but any infrastructure component's biggest asset is in how it threatens to change the future.

“We talk about autonomous cars today and we forget about the fact that that conversation only exists because road systems were thought of as a good idea 2,000 years ago,” Gamiño said. “And we take that underlying infrastructure largely for granted now.”

San Francisco’s Wi-Fi network may be opening access to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it, such as students and developers, maybe the next Elon Musk. During a 30-day period last Oct., the city’s Wi-Fi network saw more than 126,000 users who logged more than 3.5 million sessions and downloaded 11.5 Terabytes of data.

“This whole concept of the Internet of Things, without the Internet, it’s just a bunch of things,” Gamiño said. “So the part of this innovation that matters most is the Internet part. Without the connectivity, none of the rest of the conversation exists.”

Editor's Note: this article was edited Feb. 5 to clarify the network's use statistics.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.