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This Week in Civic Tech: San Antonio's $14M Deal, Bluetooth Sensors and New York Hot Spots

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / August 28, 2015
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor just approved a $14 million deal to put the city on Accela's civic tech platform. YouTube/It's Time Texas

This Week in Civic Tech presents a lineup of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover the latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each Friday for updates.

San Antonio Drops $14 Million on Civic Tech

The city of San Antonio has a liking for civic tech, an affinity that led to a $14 million investment on Aug. 19. The deal plugs the city into a suite of apps on the Accela Civic Platform, known for land management, licensing, GIS, legislative administration and civic engagement tools. The service aims to help San Antonio staff communicate between offices, as well as with field workers, local businesses and residents. Rod Sanchez, the city’s director of development services, connected the move to a larger modernization effort, pointing toward benefits in infrastructure, service delivery and civic engagement.

The deal, which represents the largest land and building infrastructure purchase for Accela to date, began as a way to replace aging infrastructure with cloud technologies while increasing the digital-friendliness of city services. When San Antonio began dabbling in a digital 311 system for non-emergency requests, citizens gravitated to the service. According to officials, San Antonians have grown to expect online options in all aspects of their interactions with the city. With permitting, the hope is to reduce in-person visits while adding convenience. To streamline the transition, San Antonio and Accela are collaborating with CityGovApp, a government-facing mobile app company; DPCI, a content management company; and government software providers TruePoint and e-PlanSoft.

Bluetooth Sensors Bite into Infrastructure

The word “filament” is defined as a threadlike conductor or — in the case of lightbulbs — as an instrument of illumination. But with the wireless sensor startup of the same name, it's both. The startup’s sensors simultaneously conduct data transmissions up to 10 miles apart and point users to a host of insights in architecture, farming, oil production, mining and other remote or secure infrastructures — this, of course, all without the Internet. The solution achieves the feat through a cunning adaptation of low-energy Bluetooth with a dose of financial and privacy tech.

Filament collected $5 million in Series A funding on Aug. 18 for a total of $6.2 million since it was founded in 2012 by entrepreneurs Eric Jennings and Sally Carson. Top investors include Bullpen Capital, that led the Series A funding, with fellow investors Verizon Ventures, Crosslink Capital, Samsung Ventures and others following. Also notable about the startup is its savvy use of blockchain, the underlying code for the digital currency bitcoin. Built on open source code, Filament has monetized its service, allowing users to transmit their infrastructure data for a fee.

Government may warm even more to the startup upon learning that data from its sensors — that can monitor light, sound, temperature, humidity, movement and more — is encrypted. The sensors cost about $25 each, but average about $10 to $12 for customers who buy in bulk. High volume production is already underway with early adopters across industries, representing small to large companies. Shilpi Kumar, a product development specialist at Filament, said talks are ongoing with a few governments considering the technology. What does this mean for civic tech? The sensor network could be a source of open data apps for citizens if attached to an API or added to a city’s open data portal.

Demand for Library Hot Spots Heats Up in New York

Ever since the New York Public Library began checking out free mobile hot spots, demand has exploded. In 2014, the Knight News Challenge granted the library $500,000 to launch a yearlong program that put 10,000 hot spots in low-income communities. With help from backers like Google Ventures, Open Society Foundations and the Robin Hood Foundation, an additional $1 million has been added to put hot spots in all five New York City boroughs. Civic Hall’s Jessica McKenzie reported that popularity of the devices — Sprint’s Netgear Zing mobile hot spots — have necessitated advance registration for orientation sessions.

While the devices are limited to a 3G speed downgrade after users reach an allotted 6 GB data limit each month, there are overwhelmingly positive reviews by both program managers and library card holders. Those without home Internet service can check out hot spots for six months and request a one-time renewal. Despite immediate impacts, New York library officials do question the program’s financial sustainability without philanthropic support.

In the future, what may improve or even supplant the program is an initiative already in the works by Google’s Sidewalk Labs. The company partnered with city officials in June to enhance its LinkNYC initiative that spreads free Wi-Fi across the city through 10,000 Wi-Fi and payphone stations. Sidewalk hopes to launch similar initiatives in other cities as well.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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