San Francisco Puts Brakes on an App for Transit

If all goes according to the five-year plan approved by the Board of Supervisors, the city and county of San Francisco will upgrade its technology infrastructure to accommodate such trendy things as social networks, cloud computing, crowd-sourcing, open-source software and location-aware apps. But by then it will be 2016, or more than 10 product cycles by Silicon Valley standards.

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Meanwhile, a small team of volunteers took just 10 days last summer to create an Apple iPad app that uses Global Positioning System technology to track all of the city’s buses in real time, allowing transit managers and passengers to monitor problems and delays.

Most who saw the SMART Muni app — including Edwin M. Lee and 15 other mayoral candidates in October, and senior leadership from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in February — considered it an improvement over the four-channel radio and old paper clipboards currently used to track problems.

But now, 10 months later, the app that the volunteer developers created for Muni is unused. Muni hopes to put the app to good use some day, but the agency is $29 million over budget and cannot afford to buy the iPads required to run the software, a Muni spokesman said. Nor is the city willing to invest $100,000 to run a pilot program.

While Mayor Lee promotes technology initiatives to “catalyze greater job creation, community engagement and government efficiency,” according to a press release from his office in February, developers who hope to use technology to solve some of their local government’s problems must first come to grips with the decidedly un-startup pace of government.

“I’m sitting in the most innovative place in the world,” said Joel Mahoney, a 2011 Code for America fellow, recalling his wait to renew his driver’s license at the San Francisco office of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “But I may as well be in the 1970s. It’s untouched by technology.”

Government cannot keep up with the rapid technology advancements that consumers are accustomed to, said Mr. Mahoney, 35, because despite the cost savings that agile projects like SMART Muni can offer, city officials are averse to the risks that many tech companies routinely take.

“Start-ups fail at a high rate,” said Jay Nath, chief innovation officer of San Francisco. “As stewards of taxpayer dollars, we need to be thoughtful of using that money wisely and not absorbing too much risk.”

Mr. Nath said the city’s priorities for next year include figuring out how to move ideas like SMART Muni from prototypes into the marketplace so that governments can purchase finished projects without assuming the risk of financing product development.

Jake Levitas, 25, a research director at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which sponsored the civic hackathon where the software was created, said citizen-developed apps generate fresh ideas for tackling old problems at a substantially reduced price, but also risk becoming failures that burn holes in the city’s budget.

Until city government matches the pace of civic coders, Mr. Levitas added, the effort to put the app in the hands of Muni drivers will be greater than what it took to build it.