Enthusiastically Embracing a Job Never Finished

San Jose City Hall

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Ahead of Route Fifty’s “City in Beta” event, San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness outlines how the city is working to become “as innovative as the Silicon Valley population we serve.”

On Wednesday, the City of San Jose will welcome technology and innovation leaders from around the Bay Area—including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka—to share what’s on our minds about the intersection of technology, citizen services and inclusion as part of Route Fifty’s City in Beta.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — When you’re surrounded by some of the most innovative companies in the world, it can be tempting to get caught up in Silicon Valley buzzwords. And while I almost always argue against using jargon, there is one phrase and idea that we have really embraced: Beta.

In the tech world, beta refers to the time between having something that works and having something that is nearly perfect. It involves doing user testing to understand use cases and to identify glitches so a team is prepared to deploy a solution at scale. Beta testing has been used for decades by our private sector friends just down the road, and now it’s being embraced right here in San Jose’s City Hall.

It’s not news that San Jose’s goal is to become as innovative as the Silicon Valley population we serve…but we’re starting to make tremendous progress towards achieving that goal, and that progress is what the City in Beta event—and this article!—are all about.

San Jose is using technologies like sensors and telematics, integrated with other data sources across city departments, to enable decision-making that’s informed by real-time data. These solutions are proof that when cities focus innovation efforts on problems that are important to citizens, the results can include improved services, saved taxpayer money, happier citizens and more effective government employees.

The first example is the progress our city has made in using technology to improve public safety through more efficient use of police resources.

Here’s the context: three times a day, seven days a week, there are police shift changes that require police officers to park their vehicles so they can complete their shifts, and others to locate their vehicles so they can start their shifts. In cities the size of San Jose, that have large police departments with approximately 300 vehicles affected, coordinating shift changes with maintenance efforts is a nontrivial task. We even have to dedicate maintenance staff to this daily effort.

So we’re using telematics—in partnership with Verizon—to automate the shift process. As a result, we’re greatly reducing (and possibly entirely eliminating) the need for maintenance staff to assist with dispatch...saving the city $300,000 a year and improving the efficiency of the city’s police services.

We are also using technology to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety, a perennial concern of city residents in communities across the country, but of particular importance to residents of the Bay Area.

One tactic San Jose is deploying is integrating real-time data from dozens of sources to make transportation management more nimble and flexible in the face of changing real-time conditions: for example, being able take quick action to mitigate traffic in response to unforeseen events like vehicle accidents.

Specifically, we’re implementing an eTracker system at our Transportation Incident Management Center. eTracker is a semi-customized software tool that automatically integrates real-time data across sources—for example, Google traffic congestion maps, our Department of Public Works’ Cone Zone map, the Metropolitan Commissions Transportation System’s 5-1-1 System, the city’s traffic video cameras, and service requests from the public—into one comprehensive system. The end goal is flexible, real-time management of our transportation system for less traffic accidents, faster travel times, and improved road maintenance.

The final example I want to share is a remote sensing technology our city is exploring as a part of our Demonstration Policy. RSM Technologies has installed radars, infrared pedestrian sensors and other software in our north San Jose Transportation Innovation Zone. The goal of the demonstration project is to show how traffic signal timing and overall intersection performance and safety can be improved using applied computational intelligence.

The initial results are encouraging: the first six months of the pilot indicate that remote sensing could reduce travel time by an average of 10 percent, save 25 hours of travel time per weekday and substantially reduce ‘Maximum Delay’ (the longest delay a vehicle experiences during peak traffic times). These are significant results. If deployed at scale, the new streams of data could be integrated into eTracker and further improve the city’s ability to safely and efficiently manage our transportation system.

In San Jose, we are in a privileged location when it comes to using data and technology to improve citizen services. We want to share the lessons we’re learning, so that other communities can leapfrog to new solutions rather than waste time duplicating efforts we’ve already undertaken. We’re doing this, in part, by welcoming events like the City in Beta and speaking and writing widely about our experiences.

We are also seeking to help other communities scale the solutions that are working in San Jose through our partnership with The Atlas Marketplace. We are sharing the specifics of how projects are actually getting done. Our team shares with The Atlas’s online community of 60+ local governments everything from how we’re paying for projects and the costs involved to specific departments that are championing efforts, the scopes of work we wrote and finally, what the outcomes have been from specific initiatives.

Because The Atlas is free for cities to join, this online, city-to-city learning is reducing the barriers to scaling proven urban innovations in communities far from Silicon Valley.

While the pace of innovation may be slower in City Hall than it is at eBay—often for good reasons!—the process of innovation can look similar. And instead of creating cool new gadgets, the results of innovation in San Jose’s City Hall make our community safer, smarter and more sustainable.

The idea of Beta testing started in our backyard, and now we’re proud to serve as a Beta tester for our local government peers across the country and around the world.

Kip Harkness is Deputy City Manager in San Jose, California.

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