San Antonio Partners With Geekdom To Solve City Problems With Technology

Nov 14, 2017

People go to animal shelters with a specific dog in mind: age, color, breed, temperament, etc. And when they don’t find it, says Kate Mason with the city’s Office of Innovation, they leave.

 

“And the onus is on them to continue to come back or look online, and lots of times they lose interest,” Mason said.

But she thinks there is a technological solution to San Antonio’s stray dog problem. She speculates about an automated notification system that looks at what all the shelters have and lets people know when a dog they might like comes in.

 

This hypothetical could be just one of the challenges the city is going to present as part of a new program pairing city departments with startups or students in order to solve problems with tech.

Image provided by Office of Innovation in 2018 Final Budget Proposal.

The Office of Innovation is partnering with Geekdom, a technology coworking space, to launch CivTechSA. It will embed startups with departments for 16-week residencies to try and provide tech or software solutions to city problems. Some of these challenges will be geared towards students and classrooms, to engage them in the process of solving real-world problems.

Geekdom Programs Director Dax Moreno said through their Startup Weekend programs, last year’s San Antonio Water System coding challenge, and the recent VIA code-a-thon, he knows there are companies interested in this program.

“There’s a real hunger, I think, for the startups that are inside of the community to solve not only real world problems but problems that are happening today,” he said. “People want to program and code, but they want to program and code with a purpose.”

Geekdom will have to add dedicated staff to manage the program, Moreno said.

What is CivTechSA?

  • Residenciy Program - 16 week residency between a startup and a city department, tackling pre-defined challenges, developing customized technology solutions.
  • Entrepreneurial Engagement - custom community events that expose and cultivate entrepreneurial development.
  • Academic Engagement - coordinating with public schools, colleges, and universities to develop specialized activities that build technology an dinnovation skill sets that can both benefit students and local community.

Geekdom and the city started talking about this kind of a program around the time 311 services contracted local startup CityFlag to revamp its app. CityFlag wants to gamify the process of reporting infrastructure and code compliance problems, creating a sort of social platform for neighborhoods. In addition to increased community engagement, the app was a fraction of the cost of the former provider, according to city numbers.

Credit Courtesy of cityflag

As a result of challenges connecting to legacy systems, CityFlag has had to delay its delivery of  the final app to the city, which was supposed to launch in August. According to company co-founder Alberto Altamirano, the customization of the product to suit the city’s needs is taking longer than they thought.

“As a startup, we move at a fast pace. Government entities have protocols and may move slower at times,” Altamirano wrote in an email. He said they hope to release the app this fall.

The city’s former app remains active and residents haven’t been impacted.

 

“In the startup community, failure is a win,” Geekdom’s Dax Moreno said.

That’s because, he added, failure is gaining experience and knowledge, and entrepreneurs can’t get bogged down in one attempt not working out.

And City Innovation Manager Kate Mason said, best of all, San Antonio won’t be on the hook if these CivTechSA startups fail.

“The startup is carrying the burden of the risk of failure if their product doesn’t work and the city can’t purchase it,” Mason said. “Embedding the tech mindset is a win right there.”

Mason said the city will try to solve problems regardless, but having a person who can give new insights and talk about what technological opportunities exist working alongside city staff is a big deal.

Knight civic-tech from Knight Foundation

 

CivTechSA is cribbing other cities with these residencies. Most notably San Francisco and the Bay Area’s Startup In Residence program that started in 2014.

Deborah Acosta used to work for Pandora before becoming Chief Innovation Officer for the city of San Leandro. She says STIR has been a huge success for them. They have embedded several startups in departments, and the project has been low-risk and high reward on both sides.

“There having a lot of fun with this,” Acosta said. “They meet with these entrepreneurs. It’s a new way of thinking. The entrepreneurs are learning about how to work within government, they find that both frustrating and pretty cool because there’s not many people that have this kind of insight.”

 

Acosta highlights a recent project they launched from the STIR residency in their economic development department.


It’s an online marketplace from the company SyncFab that connects people who need things fabricated in a machine shop with San Leandro’s largely forgotten manufacturers.

“If you’re an economic development person, you’ve been looking for this solution for decades,” said Acosta, who believes this will help revitalize factories that have an estimated 50 percent of their machines idle.

The big difference between the STIR program and CivTechSA is the workforce development piece through the cities schools.

According San Antonio’s Chief Innovation Officer Jose De La Cruz, simple problems will be offered to some high schools throughout the city. Moderate and complex problems can be put out to local universities to show students they can impact their communities and build a business here in San Antonio.

 

“By starting with the high schools, continuing on to the universities and then to the entrepreneurs, we want to show them that San Antonio is up and coming in the tech scene,” De La Cruz said. “We want to keep them here, so selfishly, we wanted to create a program that allowed that to happen.”

De La Cruz said he thinks no other city is doing a program like this to the scale of San Antonio.

They hope to launch CivTechSA, and offer two to three challenges in the spring of 2018. UTSA and San Antonio Colleges are likely candidates for moderate challenges. While no high schools have been identified, Geekdom and 80/20 Foundation — both founded by Graham Weston — have been heavily involved in CAST Tech downtown. 80/20 has committed $1.2 million towards the school.

 Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive