What’s New in Civic Tech: SF Mayor Encourages Cities Nationwide to Apply for Expanded Startup in Residence Program

Plus, Philadelphia becomes first U.S. city to map urban trails via Google Street View, Code for America developer emphasizes importance of design for the public good, and Uber begins sharing some transportation data with cities.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee took to the blogosphere this week with some advice for city governments across the country: Apply for the Startup in Residence (STiR) program, which embeds fledgling technology companies in municipal agencies to help bridge the gap between public service and the private sector.

The STiR program began in San Francisco in 2014. In 2016, it went regional, expanding throughout Northern California: San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento. Now, it’s looking to expand nationwide, to as many as 100 cities, and as it does, Mayor Lee is encouraging all interested cities to apply.

“We want STiR to be used by cities both large and small, and in areas of the country that have differing political views,” Lee wrote in a post on Medium. “We are confident that this program can be successful no matter where it takes place.”

Applications are open now and will remain so until Sept. 15. Organizers are hoping to announce the much longer list of participants by early next year, as well as the accompanying startups that will be engaged.

“From creating affordable housing to maintaining parks to paving streets, city government can leave enduring positive impacts on the lives of its residents,” Lee wrote. “With the help of STiR, we can make those impacts even more meaningful and long-lasting.”

This also marks the first year that the managing of STiR will be a collaboration between San Francisco and City Innovate Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to guide local government in the creation of user-centered tech products.

Philadelphia is first U.S. city to map its urban trails on Google Street View

Citizens of Philadelphia can now use their phones to explore local parks through Google Street View, making the city the first in the country to map its more than 400 miles of urban trails this way, according to a press release from the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.

The launch of this capability marks the culmination of a year-long mapping process that captured ground-level imagery of the city’s trails, parks and other cultural attractions, all of which have now been added to Google’s database of maps. This effort ran from May through October of 2016, and it involved city staff borrowing a 50-pound camera from Google, hiking the parks system, and taking panoramic images.

The hope is that would-be parks visitors will now explore Philadelphia in advance of actual trips, although the press release notes a wide range of potential uses, including one for runners who want to scope out a route before a 5K. The public staffers that made this effort possible kept a sporadic blog about the effort on the department’s Website.  

This marks another major expansion this year for the imagery available through Google Street View. In July, the program took viewers off the planet and up onto the International Space Station, where they could experience a 360-degree view of all 15 of the facility’s modules. While the parks in Philadelphia might not be as far-flung as outer space, they are far more likely to be a reasonable option for visitors to see in person one day.

Code for America developer emphasizes importance of design for the public good

A designer with Code for America has written a blog emphasizing the importance of using design in the service of the public good.

The blog stressed, among other things, that in order for digital services to truly serve the citizens they are designed for, they have to be presented in an inclusive way for all people, and something that’s key in this is design, wrote Daniella DeVera in a post on Medium.

“When we talk about designing government services, we have to realize our customers didn’t choose to be customers,” DeVera said. “Our user base is everyone. We don’t get to choose who to cater to. We have to design for everyone.”

One example DeVera draws from is Code for America’s work with GetCalFresh, which has made California’s food assistance services more accessible via tech. Focusing on simplifying and streamlining its design was not only a prudent move to make things easier on users, but one that helped developers become more invested in and understanding of the work they were doing.

"Looking at the experience holistically and breaking down where applicants got stuck and why, helped inform our design, but it also helped us define some product values,” DeVera wrote. “We are teasing out what it means emotionally to apply for social safety net services. This defines our brand values and how we design for our users, which again, is everyone.”

Uber shares select urban transportation performance data with city governments

This week, ride-sharing service Uber launched a traffic analysis tool called Movement, which provides access to a modified version of Uber’s own demand and use data that can serve as a window into travel times in the cities where Uber drives.

In a press release first announcing the tool earlier this year, officials with Uber billed the feature as one with great value for transportation and city planners, saying they could potentially use it to “evaluate which parts of cities need expanded infrastructure,” among other things.

“City planners face a myriad of challenges, and we hope to help tackle more of them over time,” Uber wrote in the release. “We’re excited to partner with city officials, urban planners and research organizations to continue building features that today’s transportation planners need.”

Essentially Uber will now be publishing what traffic routes have proven to be the most effective at what times of day in its cities. Given that Uber has thousands of drivers traversing the streets of hundreds of cities across the globe, this information is likely to be of value. The Movement tool and the data it provides also marks somewhat of a departure for a company that has seemed hesitant at times to share information with public agencies, regularly citing privacy concerns.

As the tool was launched, company officials emphasized that sharing this data will not reveal anything about its customers, reaffirming its ongoing commitment to user privacy. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine