Issuu on Google+

Cover Story Veronica Weber Palo Alto’s new chief information officer, Jonathan Reichental, is leading the city’s effort to transfer information from bulky servers, seen here, to the digital cloud. Palo Alto looks to hackers and social networks to transform City Hall by Gennady Sheyner “T he last thing you need is a bureaucracy,” Steven Levy wrote in his landmark 1985 book, “Hackers.” “Bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed systems, dangerous in that they cannot accommodate the exploratory impulse of true hackers.” The line, which comes out of a chapter on “the hacker ethic,” captures the historic tension between hackers and governments. The former are thought of as nimble, creative and committed to transparency, their secretive nature notwithstanding. The latter are often seen as sclerotic organizations that hoard information and take far too long to get anything done. So there was something ironic and significant about Feb. 11, the night Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh rushed from Fraiche Yogurt to Stanford University’s Arillaga Alumni Center, where about 30 software wizards worked their magic during a 24-hour “Hackathon.” Participants split up into small teams, with each team working on a project that was pitched to members at the beginning of the event. Yeh’s mission? To get to Fraiche before it closed at 11 p.m. and to deliver frozen yogurt to a three-member team of hackers working on a new digital tool for the city. He barely made it. Two weeks later, during his State of the City Address, Yeh unveiled the result— an online catalogue of every Palo Alto street, complete with its “Pavement Condition Index.” Called StreetViewer, the website scores streets from 0 to 100; higher numbers indicate a better condition. This year, as Palo Alto embarks on its “year of infrastructure renewal and investment,” the council is considering a recommendation from a specially appointed citizens com- mittee to get every street in the city to a 60 or above, a tall task for a city with aged streets and years of projected budget deficits. The website also allows users to look up streets by scores and to snap and upload photos of their streets. Though the street-repair project is a colossal multi-year affair, the speed at which StreetViewer was assembled is almost unheard of for a city as notoriously thorough as Palo Alto. And it could be a sign of the future. The project, Yeh said at the State of the City speech, “symbolizes our willingness to solve problems in a new way.” He thanked the three Stanford students who coded through the night, and he put in a plug for the “Super Happy Block Party” — a 12-hour hacker festival and coding party this Saturday in downtown Palo Alto, which the city is co-sponsoring. Yeh called this mash-up of government officials, artists and hackers “the next step in making city data available to technologists to create innovative solutions that benefit the community.” Palo Alto’s newfound alliance with hackers is the latest evidence of a philosophical shift that has rumbled through City Hall over the past year. The shift is apparent when City Manager James Keene talks about his “open data” initiative; when the city’s Facebook and Twitter updates flutter like snowflakes during council meetings; when the city’s newly hired chief information officer (whose position didn’t even exist last year) talks about exchanging the IT department’s bulky email servers for a digital cloud; and when the council signs contracts with companies like OPower and rBlock for social-media tools that residents can use to keep track of, respectively, energy use and neighborhood news. Some of these efforts have already borne fruit. StreetViewer, for example, went live last week, and city officials have just hosted their second “Twitter Q&A” event Thursday. Many other initiatives will be unveiled in the coming weeks and months as the city completely overhauls its much maligned website (long a sore spot for the city and a sorer one for the website’s users), releases new sets of public data for local software wizards to fiddle with, further beefs up its social-media efforts and develops mobile apps aimed at making life a bit easier for local residents. If things go as planned, residents will soon be able to use their phones or tablets to pay parking fines, obtain permits and take photos of potholes or graffiti that they can instantly send to the city’s Public Works Department. (continued on next page) *>œÊÌœÊ7iiŽÞÊUÊ>ÀV…ÊÎä]ÊÓä£ÓÊU Page 37

Palo Alto Weekly 03.30.2012 - Section 2

Related publications