“It’d be awesome to use technology to fix some of the problems that San Franciscans see every day,” says Twitter chairman and Square founder Jack Dorsey, in an all-star video promoting San Francisco’s new open government and tech advocacy group, sf.citi. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone imagines smart bus displays that track public and private transit in realtime, while Airbnb founder Brian Chesky wants to blanket the city with public Wi-Fi by converting old telephone booths (which has been done in New York). Spearheaded by angel investor Ron Conway and backed by more than 300 prominent companies, sf.citi aims to hand over more government services to volunteer “civic” hackers and coordinate support for policy reforms, such as the Proposition E tax reform.
The United States has been a leader in the open data movement, at least since Ronald Reagan released government global positioning system data to the private sector, which helps power everything from smartphone maps to car GPS systems. More recently, President Obama’s senior technology advisor, Todd Park, vastly expanded the effort to include medical and education data, a small business-friendly government procurement process, and PayPal-like money transfer system for foreign aid. At the local level in San Francisco, former mayor and current California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom ordered departments to release all non-confidential data to the public.
More recently, San Francisco saved itself thousands of dollars and many months of development time by giving a group of volunteer civic hackers beer, pizza, and access to the government’s data so they could develop an app for MUNI, the city’s municipal bus system. Additionally, migrating San Francisco’s police department from paper to iPads is estimated to save them many (crucial) man hours. Both the MUNI app and police project are under the continued support of Conway’s sf.citi.
sf.citi has initiatives on everything from education reform to open data, but passing local Proposition E — to start charging companies on their revenue rather than their payroll — is one of the major policy initiatives for Mayor Ed Lee and Conway. While ballot propositions have a notoriously difficult time in California, research from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that local initiatives are far more successful than statewide measures (~80 percent vs. 40 percent). Recent polling, however, finds that only one-third of San Franciscans supported the measure (slightly more opposed).
The good news is that Californians can now register to vote online and let their voices be heard.