Industry Giants, City Leaders Gather to Take on Seattle’s Biggest Issues

Seattle City Hall housed representatives from tech giants like Microsoft and Twitter this week to discuss homelessness and transportation woes in the city.

by Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times / September 21, 2018
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(TNS) — Seattle tech executives took a crash course on city government Thursday as Mayor Jenny Durkan hosted the first meeting of her new Innovation Advisory Council.

The representatives from companies such as Expedia, Tableau, Microsoft and Zillow listened to short presentations on homelessness and on transportation as Durkan sought to bring them up to speed on some of Seattle’s biggest problems.

The companies mostly lack expertise on those issues and some of their leaders recently opposed Seattle’s short-lived head tax on large businesses to pay for homeless services and housing. But Durkan says the city can tap their know-how. Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and F5 also have signed up for the group, among others.

“We have some of the most brilliant talent anywhere right here in Seattle and the region,” she said, opening the meeting at City Hall. “So, how do we take that and harness that great brilliance for the better of the people of Seattle?”

When the mayor announced the panel last month and was asked how the participants could help, she said they might help design an app allowing the city and nonprofits to more efficiently connect homeless people with shelter beds and benefits.

On Thursday, she said there should be realistic expectations.

“To be clear, there’s no app that’s going to fix anything,” Durkan said. “But at the same time, if we’re not using that as part of the solution … then I think we’re really missing a great opportunity.”

The city’s departments are submitting project ideas, and the plan is for the companies to come up with proposals before the group meets again in October and December.

The participants will get to work in 2019, according to the Durkan administration.

A mayoral order that created the panel included no concrete pledges of time or money. But Durkan reiterated Thursday that the participants have agreed “to bring their resources to the table.”

Some of the execs were more familiar with the issues than others. Laura Baga, a government-affairs rep from Microsoft, said her company has been studying data-based approaches to homelessness in other cities.

Rebekah Bastian, vice president of community and culture at Zillow, wanted to know whether the panel would be weighing in on city budgeting.

“When I look at the problems surrounding homelessness, I think by far the biggest thing we could do is put a lot more money into housing,” she said.

Steve McChesney, vice president of global marking at F5, described himself as new to the topic.

“The behavioral data — what is it that led up to somebody being homeless?” he asked. “Is it alcoholism? Is it money management?”

Some companies may offer assistance on collecting and analyzing data, while others may concentrate on software.

Participants also are thinking about how to broaden the conversation. Brian Kahrs, a Twitter project manager, said the company would like to “support a healthy conversation among the citizens of Seattle” about the city’s problems.

Sherry Williams, executive director of operations at the Technology Access Foundation, suggested the group bring others into the discussion, such as “the on-the-ground grass-roots agencies that are actually combating homelessness.”

©2018 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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