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Norfolk, Va., Experiments with Startups to Solve Problems

The city has joined the national Startup in Residence program to partner with tech startups and find new solutions to problems like missed trash collections and communicating the dangers of possible flooding.

(TNS) — This time last year, Richard Broad had a problem.

Broad, who runs Norfolk’s Public Works department, was being plagued by calls about his trash trucks missing garbage cans on collection day.

Norfolk’s refuse collectors are supposed to pick up 60,000 cans a week, and get the vast majority of them. But every once in a while they would skip a narrow street that was, say, blocked by a delivery truck and not remember to go back at the end of the route.

And when trash isn’t collected, residents aren’t shy about letting people know, Broad said. The city’s call center, Broad’s office, the city manager and even individual council members have all gotten calls.

Broad thought that surely someone could find a high-tech solution for the decidedly low-tech problem.

That’s where Norfolk decided to look outside the city.

Partnering with a national program called Startup in Residence, which links city governments across the United States with startups to find creative, high-tech solutions to persistent municipal challenges, Norfolk posed Broad’s problem and others to the world at large last year.

In some cases, Startup in Residence involves a city hosting a firm for as long as 16 weeks.

A year later, several companies have stepped up to help Norfolk solve its problems, and they’re showing results.

Take Norfolk’s perpetual efforts to get homeowners to take flooding seriously. The city has tried to get the message across, but has learned a map showing lettered flood zones doesn’t drive the danger home for everyone, said Pete Buryk, a special assistant to the city manager who is leading the city’s Startup In Residency program.

Cue Civis Analytics, a company with headquarters in Chicago and Washington, D.C. It worked with Norfolk on a technology that uses existing data and photos to generate realistic-looking images of what their homes would look like at various flood stages.

Buryk said the aim of the app, which could be available to residents early next year, is to nudge people to buy flood insurance when they live in areas where it’s not required.

Cities have long talked about bringing a business mindset to government, but Buryk said Norfolk officials were intrigued when they heard about the concept of tech workers innovating alongside city staff.

“We’re all very busy doing the things we’re doing every day, and sometimes its tough to step away and think about a challenge we have in a new way," Buryk said.

Broad’s missed trash cans didn’t require that kind of on-the-ground work by a tech company. Norfolk got a pitch from a firm, Rubicon, that already had a way to track collections using GPS.

Under a free six-month pilot, the city outfitted trucks with trackers this summer and issued drivers iPhones to take photos when they can’t make a pickup. The Rubicon system shows a map of every trash can in the city, and they turn from blue to green when they’re collected, so managers can see exactly where the missed streets are.

And it’s working, Broad said.

Refuse collectors are missing far fewer cans this year; Norfolk got 58% fewer complaint calls this July and August than in those two months last year. And now, when people call to complain, the city can explain why their can didn’t get picked up. If residents were late putting their cans out, a time-stamped photo from the driver proves it.

Norfolk also got pitches that have helped improve the city’s responses to public-records requests and develop a 24/7 resource for budding entrepreneurs.

The effort’s been a success, Buryk said, but not every problem has a whizz-bang solution. Norfolk is taking a mulligan on one of the problems it put out for consideration in the first round — how to pre-register residents for emergency shelters. The city didn’t like any of the proposals it got, so it’s soliciting more this year.

Also on the list are two new issues: how to help the city better communicate with residents, and how to develop a “virtual front porch” to keep St. Paul’s residents connected with the city and each other as the area is redeveloped.

Companies’ pitches are due by the end of the year, and Buryk said the city will try to get more local startups to participate this year.

©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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