← You're reading a post on Code for America's Blog Archive. Head back to our main site.

Day Two: Follow the Data, Iterating and the $1200 problem

It’s day two at the Code for America Training.  Before we can find new kinds of solutions, it’s imperative we understand how cities work now, how to champion projects, and how to iterate to find the right solution, so the four speakers we had today shared their perspectives on how to succeed in government and startup environments.

  • Ed Reiskin directs the Public Works department at the city of San Francisco. His past roles include supervising the city’s 311 operations, serving as a City Administrator for the District of Columbia and Assistant Mayor in Oakland.
  • Andrew Greenhill serves as the Chief of Staff for the city of Tuscon. Andrew is a big champion of open government. He founded OpenTucson and provides vision as a board member for Code for America.
  • Jay Nath champions innovation for city of San Francisco.  He’s spearheaded the vision behind Open311, datasf.org and San Francisco’s new open government directive.
  • Eric Ries is trying to change how startups are built. He’s the leading proponent of lean startups at writes frequently about it at http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/.

A couple themes ran through today’s conversations:

Follow the Data

Data can point the way to inefficiencies. Ed Reiskin noticed a problem with street cleaning.  Some trucks would go out, coming back with little or no trash depending on the day and route they took. They were sweeping clean streets.  He asked for tonnage logs (i.e. how much do trucks weigh going out and coming back in).  In just a month, his team realized that changing certain routes and reducing service on others would save money (less gas, parts, labor) and the environment (less pollution, gas consumption, water).  A year later, the department realized a little over a million dollars in savings.  The point?  Follow the data.  Cities across the country are releasing data sets on all kinds of services like trash, crime and transit.  If you can use data to show inefficiencies or waste, it makes it a hundred times easier to make your case.

Small Teams, ‘Low Hanging Fruit’, and Pilot Projects

Common to today’s three public sector speakers was the lesson that successful projects almost always start as pilot projects championed by a passionate staff member and backed by an elected official.  From identifying pot holes via mobile phones using SeeClickFix in Tucson to implementing Open311, each project started with a small team of passionate city staff complemented by outside developers and citizens.  Andrew argued that it doesn’t take a huge company to solve every problem. Rather,  it takes a huge passion and the desire to “listen to the community, which includes elected officials, community leaders and city staff.” For example, Jay Nath and Alissa Black created a small Twitter 311 client that won mayoral support. With that early success, they went on to drive bigger initiatives like datasf.org and open311. The more people you can get around a team and “pledge” to adopt a pilot project, the better your chances for success.

Iterating and Pivoting

Our mission includes demonstrating that large projects can be done by small innovative teams in government using lean, iterative methods.  Eric Ries shared the lean startup process, where startups are “human institutions designed to create something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”  The goal of the startup is to learn as fast as possible, producing “minimum viable product” that can be tested with users as quickly as possible, and to pivot quickly in response to what’s learned.   As we tackle our city projects in 11 months, it will be imperative to pivot fast, testing our products and working with citizens and staff on a routine basis.

$1200 Problem

A big problem for cities is procuring products under $10,000.  How does a city pay for an awesome application like SeeClickFix when it doesn’t fit the normal year-long planning and two-year implementation in the millions of dollars?  In Tuscon, Andrew Greenhill tapped the Mayor’s general budget for it, instead of trying to get the IT department to shell out. In San Francisco, Ed Reiskin uses discretionary spending. But every time, procurement gets messy. In reference to nepotism laws, Ed worries that he’ll appear “like I’m giving my buddies dollars.” Building great products for cities has to include finding great strategies to pay for them. In San Francisco, Jay Nath doesn’t even have a budget…which, he says is ‘liberating’ because he doesn’t need to go through procurement.

A great second day! Tons to think about and apply to our projects in the following weeks.