Reflections on the Last 6 Months as San José’s Chief Innovation Officer

Last May, I returned from my 2nd tour to Afghanistan and deployed from one crisis to another. Upon returning to the US, I was shocked that ~100k people in Silicon Valley’s largest city suffered from the digital divide, and I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the pains of our residents exacerbated by COVID. Fast forward to today, joining the city been one of the most rewarding experiences, and I am extremely thankful to be part of a team that include Mayor Sam Liccardo and staff, the City Manager’s Office, our not-for-profit and corporate partners. As Part 1 of this blog post, I’m proud to share our city’s accomplishments thus far. Stay tuned for Part 2 on our new smart city vision, my team’s priorities for the next 6 months, and new partners we have onboard.

Packing up to return home
Packed up and waiting to catch my flight home!

For the past 6 months, my team pursued the following key priorities:

  • Bridging the digital divide
  • Building a data-driven city
  • Leveraging technology companies to solve for pressing resident issues (i.e. economic recovery)
  • Generate thought leadership in the civic tech world to build our city’s brand

Bridging the digital divide

In April 2020, over 67,000 students lacked a working device for school; the city had launched the San José Digital Inclusion Fund before the pandemic hit to address the city’s 100,000 digitally excluded residents but the need took on greater importance as we all went into lockdown. After finding ourselves in a bind of how to reach the unconnected when everyone has shifted to the virtual world, we found a variety of ways to reach our community to drive awareness of city resources, to include shifting to traditional media and guerilla-style opportunities to get the word out (i.e. radio PSAs, TV interviews, printing digital inclusion resources on city water bills, leveraging Lyft’s $10K ride credit donations to support outreach and training — thank you Lyft :), and going to the field delivering digital inclusion information and groceries at food distribution sites).

Delivering Groceries & Educating Residents on Digital Inclusion @ Arbuckle Elementary

Despite the challenges, I am proud to say that the combination of the City Manager’s Office, the Information Technology Department, the San José Public Library, Santa Clara County of Education, California Emerging Technology Fund, our 23 Digital Inclusion Fund grantees, and Mayor Sam Liccardo, our city accomplished the following:

  • The City connected over 50,000 residents to broadband internet and aims to connect over 300,000 residents by the end of 2022 through a 3-pronged broadband strategy building community WIFI, deploying AT&T mobile WIFI hotspots, and enhancing existing public WiFi networks
  • The Mayor raised $1.9M in additional philanthropic funds by the end of 2020 (a special thank you to all of our corporate donors and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group)
  • The San José Digital Inclusion Fund reached 195,000 residents, surveyed over 11,500 residents for low-cost internet plan qualification, and provided 6,000 households with a combination of connectivity, digital literacy training, and/or working device for remote work or distanced learning (a special thank you to Univision for their support in radio PSAs)… our city’s student device need went from 67,000 devices back in April 2020 to now 7,000 devices
  • The San José Digital Inclusion Fund also launched arguably the most innovative refurbishing device partnership with Revivn and ServiceNow that no other local government has…generating almost $17K to purchase new devices for students and projected for over $100K annually. Other cities are normally paying $150–200 per donated device received for refurbishing services, or they ask their corporate donors to pickup that refurbishment cost, which makes you wonder…why don’t you just buy a new Chromebook then? But…for the first time, our business model flipped the unit economics upside down where we as a city now receive a substantial fixed price + revenue share % for every device donated that is sold, and if the donated device remains in San José, there is not cost of refurbishment to the city. Please reach out if you’re a corporate partner to learn more about our program.

Build a data-driven city

When I joined the city, I started asking questions around where’s the data, how do we measure performance, how do we determine equitable outcomes, and ultimately how do we share data more regularly and transparently with the public. While a significant amount of groundwork was done by current and prior city staff, we also did not have a citywide privacy policy in place due to COVID’s forced reprioritization. Since joining the city, I am proud of accomplishing the following over the last few months with the tremendous partnership from across the city:

  • The Knight Foundation awarded a $60K grant for us to hire part-time data scientists and analysts to jumpstart foundational journey to address racial equity through “data for good,” to identify city requirements for a unified data system, and to ultimately drive forward a more transparent and data-driven equity approach to policy and budget decisions
  • We recruited 4 data science advisors and fellows from Harvard and local San Joséans studying data science; we are also bringing on 8–10 additional data scientists and analytics professionals through university partnerships (more news to follow).
  • Our team engaged on data consulting projects with San José’s Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services and Information Technology Department to process and ETL internal data sets, make it accessible for analysis, and build towards data equity definitions and frameworks.
  • And yes, we finally have a citywide privacy policy as of December 2020! Thank you again to our Digital Privacy Advisory Taskforce Members, consisting of senior legal professionals, academics, and privacy executives from the NAACP, County, Cisco, ACLU, SJSU, SCCU, and Stanford University.

Leverage external technology partners

We always need to remain open to external tech opportunities that may address pressing issues facing our residents, and during this process, we screened 50+ companies for potential pilots. We also have kept our eyes open for interesting projects to include researching emerging technologies that might have a drastic shift or influence on our residents and their livelihoods.

  • Economic recovery — we launched 3 small business tech opportunities to include, free help digitizing their storefront, marketing, and ops (GetVirtual) in partnership with our Mayor’s Office of Economic Development & Land Use team, access to alternative funding (Nextseed), and cybersecurity tools and resources (Paladin Cyber).
  • Financial inclusion — The Center for Financial Services Innovation reported in 2017 that over 88M Americans were unbanked or underbanked while McKinsey’s 2019 research revealed 54% people of color in the US were considered under or unbanked. This is a significant issue, one that is arguably larger in the number of people affected in the US. We engaged with potential partners, including the SF Federal Reserve and leading venture-backed startups, to understand how best to tackle this problem in our community; unfortunately, the overwhelming need to respond to the pandemic forced us to postpone. If you are interested in this, I welcome further engagement as I am a strong advocate of technology solving for financial inclusion in our community to improve our residents’ financial literacy, access to financial products, and greater economic security by reducing risks of crime and predatory shadow banking.
  • Blockchain — under a hypothesis that blockchain was recovering from a post-hype cycle dip and would be entering a period of sustainable enlightenment with broader, tangible real-world applications, we engaged with a major public fintech company and a blockchain startup for several months to understand whether or not a city has a role or immediate feasible use case for this technology. In the end, we recognized that a lot of the tools that we were looking at had substitute or complimentary solutions. We were also pulled away (similar to financial inclusion) to reprioritize our efforts and resources due to COVID.
  • Police transparency — our team led a landscape assessment of video redaction software to improve the transparency of our police force and to optimize operational and financial efficiencies for SB 1421. The final determination of the final software solution remains ongoing.

Generate thought leadership in civic tech

We are asked to be the public face of civic tech and innovation for the city. As part of this role, MOTI gained 30% more Twitter and 500+ LinkedIn followers. We had over 20+ speaking and press events including CES, an OpEd in The Hill, Knight Foundation, US State Department, and many others. San José also joined the G20 World Economic Forum’s Smart Cities Alliance as one of two US cities invited. Last but not least, thanks to the hard work by the city over the last years, San José placed #1 Smart City as part of GovTech’s Digital Cities Survey Award.

Stay tuned for Part Two…I will discuss my vision for our smart city, my team’s priorities for the next 6 months, and new partners we have onboard. We have several projects in stealth to be announced that I’m excited to share throughout the year as well.

San José Mayor’s Office of Tech & Innovation (MOTI). Let’s co-create a more inclusive, safer & transparent San José! #smartCities