November 29, 2018

Grains of Salt (v39): Innovation Station

Grains of  Salt
What's a city to do when there are more services needed than it can possibly provide?

Try something completely different, that's what.  And that's what Syracuse is looking to do, by joining the Startup in Residence  (STiR) program.

STiR works with city and state government partners to formalize 'challenges' that startups from around the world can apply - think of kind of a matching program. A scope of work is developed and then over a sixteen week residency, the government and startup collaborate on researching, designing, building and testing solutions. If, at the end of the residency, the agreed-upon scope of work and requirements are met and a good relationship has been developed, the government secures the services of the startup to implement the solution. Sounds like a really cool program and one of those 'win-win' situations we hear about so often:
  • governments get innovative solutions to problems, as well as a partner to implement them;
  • startups get access to customers that are looking for what they have to offer, vs. having to generically pitch their ideas
  • and citizens get proven solutions to problems that may otherwise go unsolved.
Syracuse put five challenges out for consideration:
  • Autonomous snow clearing technology for sidewalks. We have miles of them, and many of them are not the perfectly smooth concrete that we see around office buildings or shopping mall. Instead, they're busted concrete, or asphalt on top of concrete, or full of roots and dirt and what not.  Bottom line? We need something that's going take a beating and keep clearing the snow. This one's important, not only because we get a lot of snow, but because uncleared sidewalks put residents on the street - school kids, the disabled, and the elderly among them.
  • Crowdsourcing platform for low-income renters to obtain loans for their security deposits. This one's interesting - come up with a way to connect people who are willing to do short-term small dollar loans for folks who need help pulling together the deposits for apartments. This can be overwhelming for people, particularly those who are forced to move for reasons outside their control (landlord issues, code violations, 'included' utilities not being paid, and so on).  Sadly, Syracuse has a high percentage of residents who are 'housing unstable' who could be helped by this type of program. The solution being looked for would be similar to Kiva.org, a global platform that connects lenders and small business owners.( Here's a glimpse into US lending opportunities, in case you're unfamiliar with this program - I was.).
  • Data analytics platform for waste management. While there are some rules and regulations governing how much and what kinds of trash can be put put for pickup by the Syracuse DPW, we're data-challenged and can't track who might be violating the rules. In addition, without good data, it's hard to optimize the routes and pickup schedules, increase productivity, help us with sustainability, and, frankly, help generate revenue by being able to provide who's violating the rules and collecting fines when they do. It's also a good thing for neighborhoods as a whole, and particularly for folks who live near the ones who break the rules. 
  • A permit-management platform. This challenge seeks a way to centralize and track all transactions related to the permitting process for the city. The current process is outdated and cannot accommodate the reality: multiple departments being involved in the review and approval process, frequently working concurrently on the same application. It's a cumbersome process for the city, and an annoying one for applicants, who may be asked to provide the same information multiple times. The ideal solution would provide transparency for the city and for applicants, establish a solid workflow for applications, and track and archive all of the comments, decisions, questions and so on. And, of course, there's money to be saved if this one comes to fruition - increased productivity and better instructions for applicants are just a couple of opportunities on that front. Customer satisfaction is also an almost guaranteed outcome.
  • Citizen engagement tool for the Trauma Response Team (TRT). I have to confess I was no aware we had a TRT in Syracuse. The TRT is currently dispatched, along with police and EMS, when a trauma occurs in the community, and members act as moderators between citizens and law enforcement. Without an effective messaging and engagement platform, they're left relying on word of mouth and social media to reach out with ongoing communications, which is hardly ideal. Engaging stakeholders and increasing trust may help lead to a reduction in violence, too. 
I'm intrigued by the whole STiR program, by the challenges Syracuse has put on the table, and by the continued outreach to any willing partner to help find solutions to problems. I'm looking forward to following these projects as they progress.