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Incubating Innovation: Bloomberg Mayors Challenge Profiles, Part 1

This is part one of a series about the 35 cities that have advanced in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, a nationwide competition to create innovative solutions for shared problems faced by municipal governments.

In attempting to help the local homeless population, outreach workers in Austin, Texas, often struggle to catalogue, access and share information about individuals they interact with — something that is key to their efforts.

Simply put, the 40-plus nonprofits and 20-some government agencies in Austin lack a central mechanism for accurate data sharing about the homeless individuals they serve, and, to complicate things further, it is often challenging — if not outright impossible — for homeless individuals to hold onto personal documentation such as medical records or even social security cards.

This becomes a problem for medical personnel or caseworkers when they need to know individuals’ specific afflictions so as to avoid offering help and treatment that is redundant or unnecessary. Doing their own data integration from scratch, however, would be a massive feat, one that would take homelessness outreach workers years.

This situation is a common one for cities throughout the country, as Government Technology has previously reported. Austin, however, is working on a pilot program that uses blockchain to make it easier for homeless individuals to provide information about themselves. City officials say this is likely a first-of-its-kind use case for blockchain, one with the potential to be scaled to other cities throughout the nation.

As a direct result, Austin was one of the 35 cities named as a champion in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge 2018, which had an initial pool of 320 applicant jurisdictions. Austin, and the other 34 cities, will now start a six-month testing phase for their idea.

In Texas’ capital, this will mean testing the viability of using blockchain to empower the homeless with the ability to give outreach workers access to the population’s personal info, said Kerry O’Connor, the city’s CIO. Just like the other champion cities, Austin will have up to $100,000 of support from Bloomberg to help make it a reality.

“The money granted by Bloomberg Philanthropies is to test, learn and prototype exactly what will happen,” O’Connor said. “Our assumption is that we’ll be able to use some type of biometrics to help [homeless individuals] give permission to another service provider to use their data. What we want to do is use this testing period to test that assumption.”

This article is the first in a series that will look at the innovative ideas of 35 cities that, like Austin, are preparing to test with support from Bloomberg that could potentially be scaled to other cities. Ultimately, these pilots have the potential to change wide swaths of the gov tech market. In October, four of these cities will receive an additional $1 million in support, while one grand prize winner will receive $5 million in support of its idea.

Cheyenne, Wyo.

In Cheyenne, Wyo., as well as many other cities throughout the U.S., recent economic decline has resulted in an increase in blighted buildings. The program that Cheyenne will soon pilot with support from Bloomberg seeks to speed up revitalization of these empty properties by matching their owners with local entrepreneurs in need of work space.

City officials in Cheyenne have so far identified 17 vacant commercial buildings and 10 partially full buildings as candidates for the work, which involves creating a new website that would connect the owners and entrepreneurs and also potentially facilitate crowdfunding for their projects. The goal for Cheyenne is to have a pilot version of the site up by July, with a full-version to follow by early 2019.

In addition, the city’s Bloomberg proposal calls for an entrepreneurial challenge in September to pit business ideas against one another with redeveloped space and seed funding as prizes.

Grand Rapids, Mich.

The winning pilot program in Grand Rapids, Mich., calls for looking at existing city data to identify gaps in equality in the community, with an ultimate goal of working to facilitate change, said Becky Jo Glover, Grand Rapids 311 customer service center manager, who is currently leading projects aimed at overhauling the city’s Web presence.

Their project is, in part, a citywide census of community data that has an ultimate goal of creating a mechanism for stakeholders in the city to apply for more grant moneys. 

“Ours is so much larger than just getting all the consolidation of data,” she said. “It’s to really work with the different segments of our community that are affected by poverty. We believe that out of this will come some great applications for our businesses to fill out one type of application for all of the funds that are available from nonprofits.”


In Philadelphia, the winning pilot program seeks to find child-centered solutions for youth offenders that focus more on service-oriented solutions than on sending them to regular police precincts for booking.

To do this, Philadelphia wants to create a Hub for Juvenile Justice Services, one that would serve as a national model for how children are treated within the criminal justice system. This hub would be a “24/7 integrated service center that is trauma-informed and technology driven,” officials said in a press release.

Staff at the hub would be trained in how to respond to youth and families, as well as on how to make referrals to prevention or other social service programs when appropriate. It would be a preventative, non-police facility to provide juveniles with both immediate and long-term access to social services and diversion programs.

Louisville, Ky.

Louisville, Ky., has a pilot program that would build on a recently installed gunshot detection system to quickly dispatch aerial drones to potential shootings.


This program, which has already made headlines, would likely be the first of its kind in the country, and it was developed as a collaboration between the city’s Office for Civic Innovation, its police department, and several community partners. 

In a press release, city officials said that through this program aerial drones could help officers investigate incidents by capturing critical evidence at crime scenes before investigators arrive. The mobile nature of the drones would also allay privacy concerns that arise from static cameras.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.