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:


View Larger Map

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.”

Jay Nath on how San Franscisco is working to get its Gov 2.0 groove back

Back in January, Govfresh founder wrote about how San Francisco can “get its Gov 2.0 groove back,” offering six recommendations to the city government to use technology better.

[Image Credit: Fog City Journal]

When asked for comment, San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath (@Jay_Nath) responded to Fretwell’s suggestions via email. While I’ll be sharing more from Nath and SF CIO Jon Walton over at the O’Reilly Radar civic innovation channel, in the meantime I’m publishing his specific responses to those recommendations below.

Build the best mayoral website in the world

Nath: We can always improve how we communicate with our constituents. If we were to undertake an effort to redesign the Mayor’s site, we should take a holistic approach and not just focus on the Mayor’s site. The approach NYC took to invite their design community is one that I think is very smart and something that SF should consider.

Use “Built in SF” technology

Nath: We agree and launched our City Hall iZone concept where we pilot great local technologies and services. We frequently meet with great companies like Square, Twitter, Uber, Yammer and invite each of them to work with the City. Specifically, we’re actively exploring Yammer, Zendesk, Get Satisfaction, Cozybit and 802.11s mesh, Google+ hangouts, and others. Additionally, we’re already using local tech like WordPress (which powers our innovation site), Twitter via Open311API, and Instagram.

Go back to the (data) fundamentals

Nath: We have an open data roadmap to strengthen our leadership in this area. It’s in our 2012 innovation portfolio as well. Our goal is to structurally change how we share data so that our default position is one of sharing. One idea is to require that all software purchased that stores structured data to have a public API. As we secure staffing for this effort, we will invite the community to help us shape the final form and execute.

Leverage the civic surplus

Nath: I would argue that we’ve done a great job in this area. Last summer, we partnered with Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) to produce the “Summer of Smart.” This series of hackathons produced over 20 prototypes, 500 participants and 10,000 hours of civic engagement. We’ve continued our efforts this year with the City’s first unhackathon around taxi dispatch and real-time mass communication. Our Mayor and transit director both attended the event and thanked our community for their efforts to make SF a better city.

Additionally, we launched our citizen engagement platform, ImproveSF, in a very big way in April.

Open source the infrastructure

Nath: While we can do more to increase open source software adoption, I want to
recognize our efforts to date:

  • open source policy
  • SFPark Android/iPhone app
  • Enterprise Addressing System
  • SmartPDF
  • LAMP as an option for internal customers
  • Pligg (DataSF)
  • Several Drupal applications

Additionally, the idea of moving our City from the existing CMS (Vision) to WordPress is not just about open source technology. We, as a City, made the decision to utilize Vision CMS a couple of years ago and the switching costs to migrate to WordPress currently outweigh the benefits. I will encourage the City to strongly consider WordPress, Drupal, etc for consideration when Vision no longer meets our needs.

Give citizens a dashboard

Nath: This is more than just adopting the IT Dashboard. We have to implement the governance and project management model to ensure that the data is accurate. This is something we need to do but requires time and culture change. I agree that we need to increase access to high value datasets like expenditures. This is part of our open data roadmap and will receive renewed focus in 2012.

San Francisco pitches lean government as a platform for innovation [PRESENTATION]

Over at TechCrunch, Eric @Eldon reports that “San Francisco Launches The 2012 Innovation Portfolio, From Open Taxi Data To Beta Tests In City Hall,” sourcing the post on a presentation from the city’s innovation staff, which I’ve embedded below. Eldon posts a summary over in his post but here’s the gist of it:

Mayor Ed Lee, who came to power last year with heavy support from the local tech scene, is announcing a new initiative today at the TechFellows awards ceremony, that has some intriguing ideas for making the city itself more relevant to the booming industry within it.

Broadly, the so-called 2012 Innovation Portfolio is trying to do everything from helping founders making it easier to complete the paperwork for creating a company, to giving developers new access to city data, to introducing new ways for citizens to share their opinions with the city, to actually testing out tech products at City Hall itself.

As Sara Lai Stirland reported last month, however, while San Francisco’s plans for open government, open data, open doors to new business and better services is focused on worthy goals, achieving them won’t be a walk in Golden Gate Park. Then again, it’s rare that anything worth doing is easy.

Honestly, in reading this over, I’m not sure about how much of this innovation initiative is truly new, although there is one news nugget “As part of this effort, the City is moving to a cloud-based data sharing service for launch in March.”

While that appears to have perplexed Eldon, many Govfresh readers will be able decipher it: San Francisco looks likely to be adopting Socrata next month. If so, that means that, in theory, civic developers will have more (better?) APIs for SF open data soon.

I have a feature in the works on what San Francisco is up to in open government and will report back when I have more to share.

Update: Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell noticed that San Francisco’s new innovation site is running on WordPress. In doing so, the city government would be adopting two of the planks from Luke’s manifesto to reboot government innovation in San Francisco. It’s a promising start.

San Francisco integrates city services, 311 and Facebook

The city of San Francisco now has a Facebook application that integrates with SF 311 service requests. The Facebook application appears to work in a similar fashion as the “Tweet my 311” service that integrates 311 with Twitter, albeit with additional privacy concerns because of the data that Facebook profiles contain.

The page links to help page on Facebook and SF311 that provides more details about San Francisco’s policies. The city appears to have though through some of the privacy issues that the integration with Facebook could create.

Specifically, a citizen does not have to share her information with the city to submit a 311 request. A citizen may remain anonymous while using the application and still submit a service request to SF311.

Here’s the rundown:

  • You can disable sharing in your profile’s privacy settings.
  • You can be anonymous by logging out of your Facebook account (or not logging in).
  • On the Facebook Login page click the “Cancel” button to go directly to the application (app). You will then have the option of manually adding your contact information to the Eform prior to submitting it, if desired.
  • You can be anonymous by allowing access, then removing your contact information populated by the application.
    If you don’t have a Facebook account.

  • That said, the city also states that “in some cases, contact information is mandatory based on the nature of the request or report,” so anonymity isn’t going to be possible in all situations. Additionally, “in other cases, it is essential to assist agencies in obtaining any follow up information required in order to service or address the problem.”

    Depending upon how implementation and adoption moves forward, this integration of Facebook and San Francisco’s 311 system may provide a template for other cities to follow.

    More on the story at SFGate.com: Facebook app speeds access to city services.

    AP covers Gov 2.0 and open government in US cities as citizensourcing grows

    QR Codes on NYC building permits
    Mayor Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor for Operations Goldsmith and Buildings Commissioner LiMandri announced the use of Quick Response (QR) codes on all Department of Buildings permits, providing New Yorkers with instant access to information related to buildings and construction sites throughout New York City.
    As people who follow this blog know well, there’s a new movement afoot to make government work better through technology. This week, Samantha Gross covered the trend for the Associated Press, publishing a widely syndicated piece on how cities are using tech to cull ideas from citizens. In the private sector, leveraging collective intelligence is often called crowdsourcing. In open government, it’s citizensourcing — and in cities around the country, the approach is gaining traction:

    Government officials tout such projects as money-savers that increase efficiency and improve transparency. Citizen advocates for the programs argue they offer something deeper — an opportunity to reignite civic responsibility and community participation.

    In some ways, the new approach is simply a high-tech version of an old concept, says Ben Berkowitz, the CEO of SeeClickFix, which helps citizens post pothole-type complaints and track whether they’ve been addressed.

    “It’s participatory democracy,” he says. “Open government … is something that was laid out by Thomas Jefferson pretty early on. This is just a way to realize that vision.”

    Efforts towards open government in the United States remain in beta. It’s early days yet for all of these trends. On this day, however, it’s good news for the community that the AP reported a “Gov 2.0” approach took off in Manor, Texas because of financial concerns.

    As Gross reported, city officials in Manor “decided they wanted to engage residents and beef up services beyond the means of their modest budget.” The approaches they chose to tap into the local civic surplus, including ideation platforms, QR codes and open source publishing, have been widely documented. Over the past month, QR codes and citizensourcing have been adopted in New York City.

    Below, one of the officials – former Manor CIO Dustin Haisler – talks about what Manor did to implement Gov 2.0, speaking from a business perspective:

    There’s a long road ahead for citizens, government and technology. This story in the Associated Press, however, will means that a few more citizens will be aware that change is afoot.

    San Francisco passes municipal open data law

    Yesterday, the San Francisco Board of Overseers voted unanimously to approve the first municipal an open data law* in the United States. November 9, 2010 is a milestone for open government.

    That said, the moment comes with major caveats on open data appetite vs reality, as John Wonderlich points out at the Sunlight Foundation.

    Here are the changes that came out of the committee, though:

    AMENDED on Page 2, Lines 2-6 by adding ‘make reasonable efforts to’ after ‘shall’; deleting ‘all’ after ‘available’; adding ‘and with applicable law, including laws related to privacy’ after ‘(“COIT”)’; Page 3, Line 2 by deleting ‘all’ after ‘accounting of’; and on Page 3, Line 5 by replacing ‘would’ with ‘could’.
    Those changes are comical. The ordinance now mandates that agencies have to try to follow the standards set by an IT oversight body, to release some information based on an audit of some subset of public data.

    This is the language of the low-hanging fruit — the kind of aspirational mandate that isn’t really a mandate at all, but more of a statement of goals and principles, lofty rhetoric with a roadmap made up of other road maps, and plans for other plans.

    Again, this declaration, and the others like it, aren’t inappropriate. Their effects probably vary based on the context, based on the actual commitment of everyone involved, from government officials to citizens.
    If all these declarations do is to win some of the easy fights, then they’re well worth the effort, because those obvious decisions (like open local transit data) have been gotten wrong far too often in the past, and can have significant positive effects when they’re gotten right.
    We need to avoid, however, thinking that these top-level political declarations are something they aren’t. Governments have a vast stores of information, and most of it won’t be reached by these pronouncements. There’s a whole world between the initial urge for government to “put all its data online” and the “please try to put some data online better when you remember to” that that urge decays into. At the first sign of trouble, “all” disappears, “must” becomes “should,” and a mandate becomes a suggestion. The San Francisco ordinance demonstrates just how far a vision for transparency can be from the kind of nuance and structure that makes it possible.

    Wonderlich is onto something here. Read the whole thing.

    *CORRECTION: As Philip Ashlock pointed out, “Portland’s open data & open source legislation passed a year ago in Oregon, though it wasn’t as explicit as San Francisco’s. See open data policy [at CivicCommons].” In his comment to FreeGovInfo’s story, he notes that Portland’s “law was largely influenced by the legislation passed in Vancouver about six months before that. The major difference (and a very important one) with San Francisco’s new legislation is that it is more explicit about using open licenses with the open data.”

    I regret the error; the tweet from the White House @OpenGov account (“San Francisco passes first municipal open data law”) led me astray.

    The text of the law is embedded below, courtesy of Chris Dorobek at Federal News Radio.

    San Francisco open data law (11.09.2010)