open innovation

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.”

HUD, Veterans Affairs and Jon Bon Jovi’s foundation launch app challenge for homeless veterans

To paraphrase President Kennedy: Ask not what your country can code for you — ask what you can code to help your country. If you’re a developer, consider empowering your fellow citizens help the homeless veterans in your community. The Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation have collaborated to back a new challenge to developers to create a better way to help the homeless veterans using the Internet and mobile devices.

“Last year’s 12 percent drop in Veterans homelessness shows the results of President Obama’s and the whole administration’s commitment to ending Veterans homelessness,” said Secretary of House and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, in a prepared statement. “I want to thank Jon Bon Jovi for being a part of that effort and for using competition and innovation to advance the cause of ending homelessness.”

The idea here is relatively straightforward: use the open innovation approach that the White House has successfully applied elsewhere federal government to tap into the distributed creativity of the technology community all over the country.

“This contest taps the talent and deep compassion of the Nation’s developer community,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a prepared statement. “We are asking them to make a free, easy-to-use Web and smartphone app that provides current information about housing, health clinics and food banks.”

While “Project REACH” stands for “Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless (REACH),” it actually aspires to do something more meaningful: give mobile citizens and caregivers the information they need to help a homeless veteran where and when it’s needed.

This app “will better connect our nation’s homeless to resources that are already available to them in a manner that reaches them where they are,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first US CTO, in a conference call today with reporters. Chopra, who left the administration earlier this year, later clarified that he was serving as a volunteer and judge for the challenge.

To say that improving the current state of affairs with homeless veterans is needed would be a gross understatement. “Homelessness for anyone is a national tragedy,” said Sean Donovan, secretary of HUD, in today’s call. “It’s never worse than for our nation’s veterans.”

The “Obama administation believes that no one who has fought for our country should ever be invisible to the American people,” said Donovan, who noted that while HUD has housed 28,000 veterans and has gotten nearly “nearly 1 in 5 homeless veterans off our nation’s streets,” more effort is needed.

He’s right. Here’s your jarring statistic of the day: One out of every six men and women in the United States’ homeless shelters are veterans. Veterans are 50 percent, according to the VA, are more likely to fall into homelessness compared to other Americans

The Project REACH challenge asks developers to create a mobile or Web application that will connect service providers to real-time information about resources for the homeless and others in need. “What if we had the ability, in real-time, drawing on local data, to help the homeless vet?” asked Donovan today. He wants to see information that can help them find a place to sleep, find services or work put in the palms of the hands of anyone, giving ordinary citizens the ability to help homeless veterans.

Instead of offering spare change, in other words, a citizen could try to help connect a homeless veteran with services and providers.

The first five entries to meet the requirements will receive a $10,000 cash prize and the opportunity to test their app at the JBJ Soul Kitchen. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize.

“At the Soul Kitchen we’ve seen the need for a simple, user-friendly, comprehensive application that connects those in need to resources in their community,” said Jon Bon Jovi, legendary rock musician, chairman of the JBJ Soul Foundation and White House Council Member, in a prepared statement. “As we sought out a solution to resolve the disconnect, we found the VA, HUD and HHS to be of like mind. Together we can provide the information about existing services – now we need the bright minds in the developer community to create a platform to tie it all together.”

Empowering people to help one another through mobile technology when they want to do so is more about the right-time Web than real-time. And yes, that should sound familiar.

Community groups and service providers sometime lack the right tools, too, explained W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of veterans affairs, on the call today. The contest launched today will use Internet and smartphones to help them. The app should use tech to show which community provider has a bed or find an employer with openings, he said.

“It’s a high tech, high compassion, low cost solution,” said Gould, that “puts the power in the hands of anyone” to use data to help veterans get the help that they need. He wrote more about using technology to help homeless veterans at the White House blog:

Project REACH (Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) challenges applicants to make a free, easy-to-use, and broadly accessible web- and Smartphone app to provide current and up-to-date information about housing and shelter, health clinics, food banks, and other services available to the homeless. It is designed to tap the enormous talent and deep compassion of the nation’s developer community to help us deliver vital information to the people who care for the homeless.

People caring for homeless veterans will be able to use this app to look up the location and availability of shelters, free clinics, and other social services – and instantaneously be able to share this critical information with those in need.

Bon Jovi, when asked about whether homeless veterans have smartphones on today’s call, told a story about a man at the Soul Kitchen who stayed late into the evening. The staff realized that he didn’t have a place to go and turned to the Internet to try to find a place for him. Although they found that it was easy to find local shelters, said Bon Joivthe websites didn’t inform them of hours and bed availability.

“People like me, who want to help, sometimes just don’t know, real-time, if there are beds available,” he said. “Think about the guys like me that have a computer, in the Soul Kitchen, that want to help.”

As healthcare blogger Brian Ahier noted this afternoon in sharing his post on Project REACH, this is the sort of opportunity that developers who want to make a major contribution to their communities can be proud to work upon.

Improving the ability of citizens to help homeless veterans is a canonical example of working on stuff that matters.

“We will, through our broad and deep network at HUD, make sure that whoever wins this competition, will make sure that app and tech is available to more than 8,000 providers,” said Donovan.

If that network Bon Jovi’s star power can help draw more attention to the challenge and any eventual services, more of the nation’s civic surplus just might get tapped, as more coders find that’s there’s a new form of public service available to them in the 21st century.

A definition for civic innovation

Out in California, Tina Lee asked about the best definition for civic innovation. As someone who has served as a fellow in the City of San Francisco’s Department of Technology Services, Lee has some personal context and interest.

According her tweets, she wants to distill the various definitions available online down to one working definition for educational purposes that would enable her to tease out the skills that are needed for 21st century civic engagement.

As it happens, I wrote definitions for years at WhatIs.com. This is an assignment that interests me. First, break down civic innovation into its components.

Webster defines “civic” as “or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.” Examples: “civic duty” or “civic pride.”

Webster defines for “innovation” as either “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device.” Example: GPS navigation systems.

So, how could one define “civic engagement?” Concisely, with examples:

In this context, then, we might broadly define civic innovation as” new idea or method that improves the lives of citizens, the functions of cities, the practice of citizenship, or the state of community affairs.”

Maryland chief innovation officer Bryan Sivak, however, that “innovation challenges existing processes and systems, resulting in the injection, rapid execution and validation of new ideas into the ecosystem. In short, innovation asks “why?” a lot.”

San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath told me via email this year that civic innovation “can be as simple as finding new ways to solve old problems. The real challenge is how to scale across a large organization and through time.”

Nath says that civic innovation is driven by resource constraints. “I recognize the value of applying lean methodology to public sector,” wrote Nath. “For the past few years, I’ve been operating without any budget and often without any direct staff. The way to innovate with these constraints is through partnerships, open innovation, and applying lean principles.”

Given that, a better definition for civic innovation might be a new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within.

Like the definition? Dislike it? Have ideas to improve it? Let us know in the comments — or share your version on Twitter using the #civicinnovation hashtag.