Meeting Cities

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall

Truth be told, it’s safe to say what we’ll be doing in February is a bit of a mystery to us all. What will our schedule be? Where will we live? How do we need to plan? For the uninitiated, February is the time Code for America Fellows leave San Francisco and spread across the country to spend time with their city partners learning about the issues facing their host city/county that the fellows hope resolve.

But if February is a mystery, this past Thursday shed some real in-person light into what we can expect.

Like much of our first week our Thursday morning began with several interesting sessions and discussions. They related to project development strategies and open data. After delicious Ethiopian lunch (and a birthday cake!) we took the short and brisk walk to the “palace for the people,” the term affectionately used by tour guide Ellen Schumer for San Francisco City Hall.

As the head docent and historian at City Hall, Ellen gave us background on the unique characteristics of the building, including the “one of a kind clock for a one of a kind city,” referring to an anomaly in the design of the building’s clockface numerals. Perhaps this speaks to a characteristic of cities everywhere. Cities are competitive. One way that materializes is in setting themselves apart from other cities in an effort to attract certain demographics that consequently bring the money, talent, and resources in to make the city a better place to live.

As fellows, we face a task of developing applications that ideally would be beneficial to reuse in city municipalities across the country and the world, yet we will also be confronted with different wants and needs from our respective host city. The next stop on our agenda offered the best glimpse yet of what working with our cities will be like, not just theoretically, but in person.

Fellows meeting with San Francisco City Partners

2013 Fellows meeting with San Francisco City Partners

After the general City Hall tour we met with San Francisco city officials from several different municipal agencies. This meeting was our first exposure to active city officials discussing firsthand their ideas and hopes, as well as the challenges inherent in their line of work. These topics included technologically pioneering ideas, such San Francisco’s Living Innovation Zone initiative, which aims to bring a sort of Internet of things to the city, whereby lampposts, rooftops and other objects and spaces act as data gathering smart devices and locations.

In fact, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has already had impressive technological penetration in this area, with 25 percent of the San Francisco parking spots being equipped with smart sensors to track occupancy. Other discussions included police being able to run record checks from their smartphones, or the potential of using smartphone accelerometers to gather data on bicycle and pedestrian traffic within the city. Among the challenges brought up were the burdens of working on ancient (read mid-90s) technology and limited (budgetary) resources. But like all good problems to have, the initiative and drive to make something of the circumstances is there, and these officials appeared to just need the expertise to implement their ideas.

“We need someone to sit down for 20 hours a week for the next six months and create an application!” fervently exclaimed Tim Papandreou of SFMTA midway through our meeting. The city has put code on in an effort to rally more open source development around its projects.

This April will mark 100 years since the groundbreaking of the San Francisco City Hall building. It’s a fitting anniversary year for the first team of Code for America fellows to work with San Francisco city officials to help improve the performance and delivery of the city’s services to its residents. Before long we will be putting dozens of hours into applications that by six-months time will hopefully be ready to make a lasting impact on cities across the nation.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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