Hacking taxis and ‘making life in SF a little better’

SF Mayor Ed Lee and Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath with SF Taxi & Mass Communication Challenge attendees (Photo: Mix & Stir Studio)
SF Mayor Ed Lee and Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath with SF Taxi & Mass Communication Challenge attendees (Photo: Mix & Stir Studio)

Last February, officials from San Francisco collaborated with the California College of the Arts and Mix & Stir Studio for the SF Taxi & Mass Communication Challenge, a 24-hour “unhackathon” focused on “design-driven technology solutions to real world problems.” SF Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath and Mix & Stir’s Christopher Ireland share their thoughts on building a hackathon that incorporated design thinking and “learning about customers from the start.”

Why focus on taxis for a hackathon?

Christopher Ireland: From CCA’s and participants perspective, this is a real problem – and one they experience regularly. They directly benefit from its solution.

Jay Nath: This is a long standing issue for our residents and one that we thought could benefit from design thinking.

How did the idea for this transpire?

CI: Again from CCA and Mix & Stir perspective, we are seeking real problems or “pain points” that can be solved through collaborations between designers, technologists and business experts. The city’s willingness to share data sets, to move quickly and decisively, and to provide background and expert contacts was key for us.

JN: We had been in conversations with CCA and Mix & Stir about the idea of a civic innovation lab. This transformed into a discussion about applying design thinking to civic challenges which led to our thinking of specific issues like the taxi one to test out our theories.

What role did SF play in the event and why?

JN: We worked closely with CCA and Mix & Stir on how to ensure that we had the right stakeholders in the room. That meant getting taxi drivers, dispatchers, our taxi director, etc., on a panel and then all day Saturday as resources for teams. We also had city leadership including our mayor, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin and Supervisor Scott Weiner attend to show support.

What was successful about the event and what lessons did you learn?

CI: For Mix & Stir, the event was a success because SF gained useful, viable ideas; our participants experienced the value of cross-discipline collaboration; everyone saw the importance of design to creating and communicating the solution, and we reaffirmed the importance of listening to and learning about customers from the start. For CCA, all of the above holds, but they would also add that sharing their facilities, faculty and student talent is in line with their strategic mission to support the SF community.

JN: We transformed many city staff into believers of the power of design thinking and how multidisciplinary teams can create new ideas and solutions. With 10 teams, we saw novel ideas that will help shape the direction the City takes to move from these solutions to incubating and productizing.

What are the next steps? How are you going to build on this?

CI:: For Mix & Stir, we first want to fully document the ideas and help the city implement the ones it can. This can be as minimal as gathering and providing work files, or we could incubate 1-2 of the ideas at CCA this summer to test it in a real world setting. We would love to work on another challenge for the City in the future as well.

JN: We are working with SFMTA and Mix & Stir to look at how to take the best ideas and bring them to life. We have some interesting ideas that we will be sharing as we make progress.

SF Mayor Ed Lee discusses the event in this interview with TechCrunch’s Eric Eldon:

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and a strategy consultant for CivicActions and NuCivic. He can be reached at luke@govfresh.com.

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