Code for America has developed apps that have trimmed Boston’s costs for digging out fire hydrants after snow and made Philadelphia city services more accessible. The ‘Peace Corps for geeks’ is the leading edge of nonprofits looking to make government more efficient.
By Jeremiah Hall, Correspondent / November 17, 2012
In Boston, there’s a fire hydrant named Al.
The city, subject to heavy snowfalls, has a problem keeping fire hydrants accessible to emergency workers and wanted a creative way to recruit willing volunteers to clear the snow. To help, the city turned to a group that bills itself as a Peace Corps for Geeks.”
The San Francisco-based group, called Code for America, created an interactive, almost gamelike application that gives virtual hydrant-naming rights to the person who tends to the hydrant the most. Without the program, the city would be left with the burden of clearing the snow.
The Boston app was so successful that other cities quickly followed suit, including Honolulu, which modified the program to encourage citizens to monitor for defective tsunami warning sirens.
Code for America brings fresh eyes to cities often wedded to their own procedures, says Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America. “Every system is hackable in the best sense of the word. What’s needed is a culture of entrepreneurship – one in which you try quickly and accept failure quickly if it happens.”
In tough economic and budgetary environments, cities are looking for ways to be a lot more efficient. “In some [cities] it can take a year just to open a purchase order,” says Ms. Pahlka.
The idea isn’t unique to Code for America. Here in San Francisco, a group of technology enthusiasts – many of whom were frustrated public transportation riders – convened for a 48-hour hack-athon to develop an iPad app called SMARTmuni. Their aim: Replace the pen-and-paper system of rerouting delayed buses and trolleys.
The service, championed by the nonprofit San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, is being tested by the transportation authority.
“Government is what we do together,” says Pahlka. “Yet many citizens don’t feel connected to their government and often distrust bureaucracies.” Code for America deploys fellows, or largely unpaid volunteers, with extensive backgrounds in technology.
User-experience strategist and technology designer Elizabeth Hunt was sent to Philadelphia to develop an app that gives residents simple how-to guides for accessing city services. “If you wanted to host a block party on your street, that information was not easily available before,” she says. In that example, the service she helped create combines a bit of party planning with information on navigating the many city laws and agencies involved.
Code for America still struggles with how to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive in a city once a project ends. “Sustainability is definitely an important aspect of every project,” says Pahlka. The group works with the city to find internal staff, look for ways to create a small business to drive the project, or even turn the project over to another nonprofit. “Eventually I’d like people to love government like they love their iPhone,” says Pahlka.
Speaking to a packed room of over 50 SFMTA employees, the SMARTmuni team introduced the pilot project to planners, engineers, and other staff during a lunchtime brown bag forum. The highlight of the presentation was walking attendees through a hands-on demo of the app. The last part of the time was set aside for Q+A, allowing ample time for insightful questions, comments, and discussion. Some of the most interesting comments were about how the iPads and the app (or another app) could be useful for planners and other office-based staff; looking for development parallels between the agency’s process for creating and launching their public-facing app (Muni+) and our experiences; and questions about what a full roll-out at the agency might entail.
Mayor Ed Lee invited angel investor Ron Conway to speak at the Tech Town Hall on October 23, hosted by AutoDesk.
Ron has long encouraged the San Francisco tech community to get involved with government. SMARTmuni is one of the companies supported by his 501c6 organization, sf.citi.
To a packed room, Ron described the SMARTmuni project’s goals to improve public transit in San Francisco and sf.citi’s role in making it possible for the team to work together with SFMTA to continue to develop the pilot.
The SFMTA had a soft test deployment of the SMARTmuni app on the evening of October 24th, which was Game 1 of the World Series. Nine individuals used our application to monitor and respond to incidents affecting MUNI’s rail system. Among those participating included staff from the Operations and Central Control Room and Line Management Center, field inspectors, managers, and the SMARTmuni team. The soft launch was a success – inspectors in the field had more information than they would have had otherwise, and many lessons were learned that have been useful as we continue to refine the application. The SMARTmuni team hopes to have soft test deployments for diesel and trolley buses within the next week or two.
The California chapter of the American Planning Association invited the SMARTmuni team to present at their 2012 Annual Conference in Rancho Mirage on October 23rd.
Project Director Judy van Soldt was part of a panel entitled, “Drivers of Change in Urban Mobility: Technology, Management and Planning.”
SMARTmuni represents both a traditional and a futuristic solution to transit system management. Existing infrastructure in this 100 year old agency has been managed using clipboards, pencils and an overtaxed two-way radio system. Paper tags are passed hand-to-hand as an issue develops; often multiple radio or mobile phone conversations are required to resolve them. Implementing the app doesn’t require expensive new physical infrastructure or complicated new work relationships. Inspectors, dispatchers and line managers use SMARTmuni to work together, resolving issues in real time.
The SFMTA – a traditional organization in many ways – is enthusiastically making a futurist’s leap.
Muni street inspector Marcus Marcic speaks with the operator of an F-Market streetcar at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Market Street in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF
Muni’s frustrating service problems can be blamed on many factors, among them a chronic shortage of operators, an unreliable fleet of aging streetcars, and buses and schedules that don’t always mesh with the realities of San Francisco’s congested streets.
Another? Paper and pens.
The Bay Area’s busiest transit agency, with 700,000 boardings a day, has relied on an inefficient mixture of radios, phones, a GPS tracking system and old-fashioned handwritten reports to manage the fleet.
The cumbersome system can result in delayed responses to problems, such as several buses showing up all at once or none showing up at all, that can leave passengers fuming.
But now city transit officials are placing a lot of hope in new fleet-management technology created in 2011 specifically for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency during a civic-oriented “hackathon.” After more than a year in development, abbreviated field testing began last week. Additional tweaks will be made, with the launch of a more ambitious pilot project probably still a few weeks away.
Smart Muni is an iPad app that allows the myriad players running Muni operations to have real-time information on what’s happening with the fleet. During peak commute periods, 800 or so buses, streetcars and cable cars can be on the street at one time.
Under a system that will be overhauled soon, street inspector Marcus Marcic logs the arrival times of streetcars and buses. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF
Replacing antiquated system
The software uses as its foundation the NextBus GPS data system that’s already available to pinpoint the location, speed and direction of every vehicle, and the distance, or headway, between them. That information is overlaid with the schedule for each line.
When a problem is identified, it’s entered into the system via text messages, giving staff up-to-the-minute information and the ability to communicate a plan of action and make adjustments on the fly – an ability that had been lacking.
Muni’s long-standing process for identifying problems relies on placing street inspectors at specific locations with printed schedules in hand to check whether runs are on time. Both they and staff at central control fill out forms by hand to report and track problems.
Radios and phones are used to notify various people – from agency administrators to the control center, to the maintenance shop to the operators – of the trouble, and then more rounds of calls and dispatches go out to discuss what to do.
“Now it can take 10 minutes just to get everyone involved, and that’s time wasted in getting the problem fixed,” said Davide Puglisi, Muni’s senior operations manager for transit services.
With Smart Muni, if a bus or streetcar is running behind schedule, a visual alert will blink on the screen to kick people into action. For example, if a bus breaks down, the driver will radio central control to report the problem, and then central control can shoot a text message over the iPad that will be seen immediately by supervisors on the street and mechanics to get them to the scene as quickly as possible.
If a protest blocks traffic on Market Street and holds up the buses and the F-line historic streetcars, fleet managers can start making adjustments, such as rerouting coaches and trains.
“With this kind of technology, you know exactly where (the Muni vehicles) are and what’s happening; it gives you a complete picture of the system, so when you make an adjustment on one end of the line, you can see how it affects the other. It makes operations much more efficient,” said John Haley, the agency’s director of transit.
Muni street inspector Marcus Marcic logs the arrival time of an inbound bus at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Market Street in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF
Saving on expenses
A more efficient system, he said, will save in operating and maintenance costs – something desperately needed for San Francisco’s transit agency, which has been plagued by recurrent deficits, resulting in both planned and de facto service cuts in recent years, in part because of insufficient resources.
Among the potential benefits that riders could experience: less bunching, more service and better on-time performance.
The Smart Muni prototype emerged from a 48-hour public policy hackathon in July 2011 sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts to see how technology could help improve local government.
To move from idea to implementation, San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, an organization known as Sf.citi that was founded by tech mogul Ron Conway, stepped in and awarded a $100,000 grant to conduct a pilot project. AT&T agreed to lend Muni 25 iPads for the experiment, which is scheduled to run at least through the end of the year.
Eclectic team of planners
Working hand in hand with Muni employees is the hackathon team – the brains behind the interactive Smart Muni app. Members, most of them devoted Muni riders, are an eclectic bunch, among them a geographer, an architect, a transportation planner, a software developer and an urban planning student.
Muni street inspector Marcus Marcic logs the arrival time of an F-Market streetcar. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF
“We felt there was a problem out there that could be fixed,” said Emily Drennen, the transportation planner on the team, who once worked at the Municipal Transportation Agency. “The reason for this project is to improve service for passengers and make a noticeable difference in how Muni runs.”
Rachel Gordon is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Jay Nath, chief innovation officer for the City of San Francisco, discusses how startups are changing government. Tech partnering with government to be innovative with data and make government better for the people.
We’re highlighted as A Case in Point on RequestForAwesome’s website as an example of the inefficiencies present in the non-traditional vendor process. They raise a great point and address the need for this issue to be resolved.
A few of months ago we met with SFMTA Director Reiskin and a few other senior members of the SFMTA staff and they were “blown away” by the project. Dealing with any city bureaucracy we anticipated some push-back, the usual “yes, but…”. We could not have asked for a better reception of the idea, though Director Reiskin made it clear that SFMTA could not pay for the application with its current budget shortfall and other challenges of opening up the project to a competitive bidding process.
We are pursuing private financing alternatives to make this happen and enable SFMTA be a pilot customer.
SFMTA responds that they want to make sure they’ve had time to evaluate the risk and make a sound decision. Hopefully we can prove to SFMTA the application’s usefulness and potential through a privately funded pilot study.
Reset San Francisco recently reported on issues we all know that plague MUNI and featured our Smart Muni application as a solution to these problems in their article: Apps Built Fast – Muni Still Slow.
Check out the demos and we hope to present our prototype product to Ed Reskin (SFMTA Director) soon.