ImproveSF Helps San Franciscans Build a Better City

San Francisco is full of busy people who want to solve big community problems… unfortunately the “busy” tends to keep them away from City Hall and the board meetings where local issues get discussed and solutions get decided. But this year the Mayor’s Office has launched a Gov 2.0 tool giving us participatory democracy from the comfort of our couch: ImproveSF, the city’s new digital town hall platform connecting locals to civic challenges that we the people can solve.

The website, a Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation project developed by MindMixer, launched back in April to get members of the community involved with local government issues, and to do so from any location and on their schedules. “People who couldn’t come to a board meeting could be involved,” Spanhake said. The site posts civic “Challenges” that community problem-solvers can submit ideas to. They can also chat with fellow San Franciscans in the comment threads. Ideas are judged by stakeholders and those responsible for implementing and managing the winning idea.

Back in April, for instance, the San Francisco MTA asked citizens how it could speed up users’ transit times. But beyond traditional community meetings, they powered their search with an ImproveSF Challenge.

“When you’re late and the bus stops every stop, you curse Muni,” Shannon Spanhake, Deputy Innovation Officer for San Francisco, said during our recent interview in City Hall. Yet once citizens got engaged with the ImproveSF challenge page for Muni, Spanhake said, they focused on helping the MTA fix the issue.

The ImproveSF platform addresses an old problem every city faces – how do you get citizens, stakeholders, and decision makers on the same page? “This is the most difficult engine I’ve tried to hack,” Spanhake, an engineer by training and former startup founder, said of her new work in a government agency. “We have the most diverse user group… and our users are also our investors and our bosses.”

“We need solutions that last for a long, long time – generations. Not eighteen months.”

In its first few months, the platform has hosted such Challenges as designing SF Public Library cards, creating a new SFMTA logo for its 100th birthday, and coming up with fresh food storage solutions for residents of the Tenderloin. This last Challenge received over 100 submissions with two winning ideas, one from a group of UC Berkeley students who will work out of The Hub while developing their system. (The Challenge also got covered in a great article from Fast Company.)

The currently listed Challenges on ImproveSF are only a preview of what can be done through the portal. “Our first goal is to build community around problem-solving,” Spanhake said.

The results so far? A wider range of ideas on solutions to problems city government deal with everyday offered up by citizens public officials don’t normally get to engage with.

But more importantly, ImproveSF has helped citizens hear each other. In the comments section for the MTA Challenge, some suggested removing particular bus stops to speed up time… until they heard from neighbors who would be affected by the loss of these stops. As one commenter wrote, “Decreasing the number of stops will make MUNI less accessible for me, and plenty of others with mobility problems. One of the reasons muni IS accessible to me is the number of stops, which minimizes my walking to doctors appointments and entertainment.” Spanhake said this sharing and back-and-worth collaboration rarely happens in traditional town halls.

Anyone from around the world can submit ideas for the Challenges, although Spanhake said most require local knowledge. Ideas can come from individuals, non-profits, or other organizations.

A mobile site, API, and maybe a couple hackathons are in ImproveSF’s near future. Need more info or want to submit your own brilliant idea to change the city? Check out the site now.