Nishat Kurwa on Friday, Sep. 28th
The subtext of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s declaration that October is Innovation Month is that the tech sector, dear citizens, is your friend. The kickoff event is a “who-are-the-people-in-your-neighborhood”-esque open house on October 11th, when tech companies will invite the public in for fireside chats and presumably, to drool over amazing rooftop views, too. The city’s cuddly relationship with tech firms has been actively cultivated by the Mayor, but lately targeted by critics who say tech wealth has made San Francisco even more inhospitable to families and the working class.
Tucked away on the second floor of the city’s hulking MTA building, though, the Mayor’s Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath is quietly demonstrating how technology and its attendant cultural influences can authentically benefit a cross-section of the residents (at least, the ones who can afford to stay). The other dimension of Innovation Month, that part about community engagement, is largely a culmination of his team’s work over the last nine months.
“A lot of the work I am doing,” Nath said recently after a brisk walk to his second floor office looking out onto the busy intersection of Market and Van Ness, “is being a bridge between tech and ‘innovation class’, for lack of a better term. It’s looking at, ‘What are the structural changes that we can do to help cross that digital divide? How can we use technology and innovation to help people who are disadvantaged, or not in a position to actively participate in our hackathons, or the events that we have?’”
Nath, who started his tech career in the private sector, is one of only a handful of municipal innovation officers in the country. Lee promoted him to the role in January, before which Nath served as Director of Innovation in the city’s Technology Department. Shortly after Nath’s title change, Lee announced an ambitious agenda that included advancing “open data” in the city; increasing online administration to move away from paper forms; and easing the rollout of new businesses in the city with a one-stop online service to help them get up and running.
Inspired by the federal government and others working under the auspices of “Gov 2.0,” Nath is pushing forward that agenda with administrative overhauls using products like SmartPDF. More philosophically, though, he wants to establish a new framework for civic engagement, “where it’s really a deeper conversation and partnership with the public and government, so it’s not seen as something where you put your taxes into and get shitty services as an outcome.”
Earlier this year, Nath launched ImproveSF, where the city invites the public to propose, debate, and upvote solutions to shared problems, and ultimately taps a winner from the crowdsourced ideas. One “challenge” resulted in a new logo for SFMTA. Another that asked how to bring fresh food to Tenderloin residents elicited more than 80 ideas, as well as thoughtful discussions that members of Nath’s team jumped onto from time to time to guide and prod.
On the IRL side, Nath also holds intensely focused short-term events like an un-hackathon to address challenges in the Central Market area. (Hackathons are software-solution focused; un-hackathons acknowledge that a non-tech solution might be in order). “I think there was over 100 hours of video filmed, really trying to deeply understand what the issues were,” Nath recalled. “We had people actually from the community who were there talking to people who were urban planners, coders, designers, architects.” Another un-hackathon addressed the difficulty of hailing a cab in a world-class city like San Francisco. Nath brought in a design studio to help create blueprints for the ideas that emerged from the event, and invited taxi commissioners and passengers to participate too. “One idea was to create a virtual taxi stand using QR codes so that people with regular phones could text in where they’re at, or if you have a smart phone you could just use that QR code. Another idea was pre-tipping to create an incentive to get taxi drivers to go out to areas (where they wouldn’t normally go).”
Nath described other solutions that would have to be built on open source data, like the cabs’ most frequent dropoff and pickup locations. “You can actually start understanding patterns. If you’re trying to pick up a taxi near City Hall, is it best to stand near Market and Van Ness? Which corner? You can actually look at that information and see what’s happening.”
Of course, when you open the city’s data to the public, there’s room for business to capitalize on it too, as the company Taxi Magic did after that un-hackathon. And in the mold of a true open-source evangelist, Nath essentially said, more power to them. “If someone is entrepreneurial enough to actually monetize that information and is able to create demand in the marketplace, that’s great – they’re creating jobs. They’re creating a livelihood for themselves,” he enthused.
That outlook is typical in a technocratic city like San Francisco. But what’s notable about Nath’s vision is that it doesn’t lionize technologists. Nor does it patronize people without tech resources by suggesting that innovation only flows downhill, from the well-resourced to the poor. When he talks about leveraging the “energy and brainpower” of citizens, Nath puts the onus on all SF residents to participate, regardless of technical aptitude. And then he designs events that make that participation possible, to avoid what he calls a “monoculture” when it comes to solutions. “It’s…recognizing that diversity is a really important part of who we are as San Franciscans, and that we get better outcomes by including people who have different perspectives and viewpoints,” he said.
It might behoove the city to give Nath’s portfolio more play during Innovation Month. Especially if it’s trying to demonstrate efforts to integrate the views from the ground, and not just the rooftops.