SF utilizes hackers to modernize computer systems

January 6, 2012 9:02:35 PM PST
San Francisco is hacking city government. Officials have a plan to bring the city's aging computer systems up to date by using the same Silicon Valley culture that catapulted Google and Facebook to greatness.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee say it's time San Francisco joined the 21st century.

"Government 2.0, if you will," Lee said.

Smartphones have apps to call a taxicab and apps to find out when the next bus is arriving. In fact, some say it's easier to find a bus with your phone than with Muni's own computer system. The city intends to change that.

"We are truly going to bring a hack culture to the city of San Francisco and it's going to be very, very exciting," Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway said.

It's the culture that created the Hack-a-thon -- 48 sleepless hours spent writing code together to quickly solve a problem.

Some engineers do it for fun.

"It gets their mind off their day job and allows them to go build an app that they can put their name on that they invented in a weekend," Conway said.

Now, the non-profit Code for America will help bring that culture to city government. Asking engineers to volunteer their time, Code for America holds hack-a-thons to build new, cloud-based apps that solve the city's problems.

San Francisco already has an app to find parking, soon taxis and buses will be tied in. Then, what about an app for volunteers helping the homeless?

"Do they have the best information at hand? About where the available shelters are immediately, when they encounter somebody on the street? Can they get wraparound services right away without having to make three or four phone calls?" Lee said.

These aren't the kind of ideas that make people rich, says one investor. They're the kind of ideas that help everyone live better.

"Most of the really big innovations have started from people who are driven by passion and not by chasing the money and it's in the hacker culture that you find the purest instance of that," O'Reilly Media Founder Tim O'Reilly said.