A Startup Called Government

Jay NathJay Nath is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts in local innovation. 

I have the distinct pleasure of serving as Chief Innovation Officer for San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee—a leader who exhibits the unique combination of foresight and creativity and to whom I owe the honor of being named a Champion of Change:  Local Innovator by the White House. Upon establishing one of the Nation’s first Chief Innovation Officer positions, Mayor Lee took an important step forward. He recognized the power and potential of innovation to solve social and civic challenges and to make government a more open, responsive, and efficient enterprise.

As CIO, I direct the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, and am tasked with tackling some of the most historically persistent and intractable problems faced by the City of San Francisco. At the Mayor’s office, we are fully aware that these massive challenges can only be addressed with participation of our citizens and help from our partners across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. That’s why we focus on creating a culture of sharing, collaboration, and co-creation and work closely with partners to change the way government serves its constituents.

Harnessing lessons learned from my time in the private sector, I take an agile approach to public administration—one that involves working to disrupt the status quo and transform government for the 21st Century. I focus on creating as much value as possible, in the shortest amount of time, with little or no capital cost. I work to connect government with the incredible network of change-agents, hackers, students, entrepreneurs, and countless other individuals who make San Francisco the Innovation Capital of the World. I constantly seek new opportunities to engage the community and new technologies that can harness the problem-solving prowess and entrepreneurial ethos of our City. Here are just a few examples:

Open Data
In 2009, inspired by the White House’s Data.gov initiative, I piloted an Open Data policy here in San Francisco—making us one of the first cities in the Nation to make all non-confidential government datasets publicly available. Largely because we used open source technologies, we were able to take this concept from idea to deployment in just three months. Since its launch, DataSF.org has attracted a vibrant community of developers who have created over 100 applications in categories such as public safety, transportation, data visualization, and environmental protection. Open Data helps to illuminate the landscape for local decision-makers and provides a standard by which information can be shared.  

In April 2012, we launched ImproveSF.com, a crowd-sourcing platform that empowers San Franciscans to generate and implement their own solutions to citywide problems.  Over 3,000 interactions have taken place thus far and the platform has been used to address local issues such as Transit Efficiency, Food Justice and Neighborhood Revitalization. The latest ImproveSF challenge called for ideas to improve access to healthy food for residents in the blighted Central Market neighborhood. Over 100 ideas were submitted and more than 500 comments made. Through this platform, we’ve seen first-hand the impact of opening civic challenges to a community of local problem solvers.

From hackathon-to-market
More recently we’ve taken the community-problem solving approach one step further by holding hackathons that bring designers and developers together to create apps that solve specific civic challenges. We then work to move the apps from hackathon-to-market by partnering with government agencies to pilot demonstration projects. The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency is currently piloting an app that allows operators to gather real-time data and improve operations.

Hackathons can help government solve a variety of operational challenges, while also planting seeds for new start-ups that strengthen our local economy by creating jobs. The City continues to work towards ensuring that ideas born at hackathons have the necessary assets and networks to scale-up to their full potential.

Innovation Month in San Francisco
With so much happening in our office and throughout our City, we are taking the month of October to highlight the impact that innovation has had on our public and private sectors. Mayor Ed Lee has declared October as Innovation Month in San Francisco to celebrate the individuals and institutions that are creating game-changing solutions to the wide variety of challenges we face.

With the leadership of a supportive Mayor and by collaborating with partners such as Code for America, SF.CITI, and many others, we have seen the power of innovation to open the doors of government to citizens, to manage customer service, to improve efficiency, and to ultimately drive better public services. Many of the activities described have been conducted at little or no cost, yet have generated tremendous value—quantitatively and qualitatively— for the public good.

Finally, we have learned first-hand that people are willing to work collaboratively with their government to address long-standing societal challenges. We will continue to engage with the creative and entrepreneurial people of our City to make our government better, smarter, and more efficient.

Jay Nath is Chief Innovation Officer for the City of San Francisco.

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