San Francisco experiments with citizensourcing better ideas

As significant as the revisions to San Francisco’s open data policy may prove to be, city officials and civic startups alike emphasize that it’s people are fundamental to sustained improvements in governance and city life.

“Open data would not exist without our community,” said Jay Nath, the city’s first chief innovation officer, this Monday at the Hatchery.

San Francisco’s approach to open innovation in the public sector — what businesses might describe as crowdsourcing, you might think of as citizensourcing for cities — involves a digital mix of hackathons, public engagement and a renewed focus on the city’s dynamic tech community, including the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or SF.citi.

Cities have been asking their residents how government could work better for some time, of course — and residents have been telling city governments how they could work better for much longer than that. New technologies, however, have created new horizons for participatory platforms to engage citizens, including mobile apps and social media.

Open data and civic coders also represent a “new class of civic engagement focused on solving issues, not just sharing problems,” argues Nath. “We have dozens and dozens of apps in San Francisco. I think it’s such a rich community. We haven’t awarded prizes. It’s really about sustainability and creating community. We’ve six or seven events and more than 10,000 hours of civic engagement.”

San Francisco’s dedicated citizensourcing platform is called “ImproveSF.” The initiative had its genesis as an internal effort to allow employees to make government better, said Walton. The ideas that come out of both, he said, are typically about budget savings.

The explosion of social media in the past few years has created new challenges for San Francisco to take public comments digitally on Facebook or Twitter that officials haven’t fully surmounted yet.

“We don’t try to answer and have end-to-end dialog,” said Jon Walton, San Francisco’s CIO, in an interview earlier this year. Part of that choice is driven by the city’s staffing constraints.

“What’s important is that we store, archive and make comments available to policy makers so that they can see what the public input is,” he said.

Many priorities are generated by citizen ideas submitted digitally, emphasized Walton, which then can be put on a ballot that residents then vote on and become policy by public mandate.

“How do you get a more robust conversation going on with the public?” asked Walton. “In local government, what we’re trying to do is form better decisions on where we spend time and money. That means learning about other ideas and facilitating conversations.”

He pointed to the deployment of free public Wi-Fi this year as an example of how online public comments can help shape city decisions. “We had limited funds for the project,” he said. “Just $80,000. What can you do with that?”

Walton said that one of the first things they thought about doing was putting up a website to ask the public to suggest where the hotspots should be.

The city is taking that feedback into account as it plans future wifi deployments:


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green dot Completed sites

blue dot Sites in progress

Walton said they’re working with the mayor’s office to make the next generation of ImproveSF more public-facing.

“How do we take the same idea and expose it to the public?” he asked. “Any new ‘town hall’ should really involve the public in asking what the business of government should be? Where should sacrifices and investments be made? There’s so much energy around the annual ballot process. People haven’t really talked about expanding that. The thing that we’re focusing on is to make decision-making more interactive.”

At least some of San Francisco’s focus has gone into mobile development.

“If you look at the new social media app, we’re answering the question of ‘how do we make public meetings available to people on handhelds and tablets’?” said Walton.

“The next generation will focus on how do they not just watch a meeting but see it live, text in questions and have a dialog with policy makers about priorities, live, instead of coming in in person.”

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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