For years, the relationship between San Francisco’s tech community and its city government–-or, for that matter, between the tech sector more broadly and public policy in Washington–-could be summarized in two words. "Pretty nonexistent," says Alex Tourk, a consultant in the city. Tech startups did their own thing in spite of government; government generally kept out of the way. And tech entrepreneurs, for their part, seldom stepped into politics.
In San Francisco, this began to change last year. Angel investor Ron Conway rallied a group of execs behind tech-friendly mayoral candidate Ed Lee, who went on to win election (he had previously been the city’s interim mayor). Around this same time, tech companies everywhere were waking up to Washington’s sudden and ham-handed interest in tech policy, in the form of those now-infamous SOPA and PIPA bills.
It had come time, in other words, for tech companies to get involved in government. And, as it happens, governments everywhere today really need their help. Recognizing this, Conway’s tech coalition opted after Lee’s election to form a permanent and new kind of organization. They envisioned it as a chamber of commerce for the tech community: the San Francisco Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or sf.citi.
The organization’s roster is formidable. Adobe is a member. As is Airbnb, Dropbox, Github, Google, Pinterest, Rackspace, Snapfish, StumbleUpon, TechCrunch, Twitter, Xerox, and Yelp. Today there are 374 tech companies and organizations collaborating on the dual mission to lobby the community’s interests while also lending out its expertise to solve some of the city’s oldest problems. The chamber of commerce analogy is the closest precedent–-and sf.citi is set up like one as a 501c(6)–-but that metaphor only goes so far.
"Other organizations advocate," says Tourk, who works for Conway running the organization, "and sf.citi is really focused on innovating."
For a city closely associated with technological savvy, San Francisco still suffers from numerous legacy municipal challenges over how transit data is gathered, how parking tickets are issued, and how police officers do their jobs. The San Francisco Police Department only entered the world of email, Tourk marvels, last year.
Sf.citi announced that it wanted to help solve some of these problems that the city government didn’t have the resources or technical knowledge to manage on its own. "There’s always a bunch of very grandiose ideas and strategies around the excitement of a new administration, and we recognized early on that we needed to pick a couple of things and do them really, really well as a way to establish legitimacy," Tourk says. The whole city of San Francisco seemed to be waiting for such an offer. "We were inundated when we originally launched in January, you couldn’t even imagine–-every idea under the sun of how this app could help this service in San Francisco."
The group picked a handful of core issues: job creation, education, transportation, and public safety. And then it started launching pilot projects with the city. In June, city and police officials, along with sf.citi, unveiled an app enabling police officers to file reports from the field (previously, they spent as much as 40% of their time logging paperwork from an office desk). Then in September, sf.citi helped roll out another app allowing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to better track buses and trains in real time.
Sf.citi put up $100,000 in grant money for each project. Member ArcTouch developed the crime app, while the SMARTmuni concept grew out of a hackathon sponsored by another member, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. AT&T and Hewlett Packard, also members, donated hardware to the city. This model–-not just lobbying ideas but shepherding innovation all the way through to reality–-makes sf.citi something notably different from a typical business association.
These same problems the group is tackling-–out-dated transportation data, pen-and-paper crime-fighting tools, parking meters that make no sense-–exist in cities all over the country. Other municipalities, of course, don’t have Silicon Valley right next door. But as thriving tech communities pop up everywhere, this blueprint for a new relationship between the tech sector and local government could turn up outside of San Francisco as well.
"There’s no doubt that this model could work in other cities," Tourk says. "I don’t think you could put it in a box and ship it to another city. But the model of the private sector playing an extremely engaged, collaborative role with government and the community, working together toward solving historic problems with innovative solutions, this is no doubt a model that should work anywhere."