SMART Muni app designed over a weekend

The city of San Francisco’s Information and Communication Technology Plan offers a bold vision for modernizing the government’s technology infrastructure. And it will only take five short years.

By then, the city will “embrace” things like social networking, cloud computing, crowd sourcing and location-aware apps. In other words, by 2016, the city earnestly hopes to have made use of the greatest technology hits of 2010. Fortunately, we’ve seen time and again how technology periodically stands stock still to allow governments and grandparents to catch up, so I can’t imagine a flaw with the plan. But there are some folks out there who think that maybe this sort of thing can be done on a slightly accelerated timeline. Like, say, a weekend.

One small team of local residents recently built an Apple iPhone app that might help fulfill that perennial mayoral candidate pledge from time immemorial: making the buses run on time.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has every intention of spending a few years and untold dollars creating its own, more robust version of the tool. But the team hacked together the basic parameters of the SMART Muni app in a 48-hour stretch in late July, fueled by pizza and beer.

They coupled a GPS data feed showing the location of Muni buses with a user interface that could allow MTA managers to more easily spot and fix problems. It will also allow riders to glimpse delays they want to avoid, or communicate issues throughout the system.

“Our goal is to make the system run more smoothly and make buses come more often,” said Eden Sherry, 31, of San Francisco, the team’s software developer. And he’s not even running for office!

Weekend session

The group has continued to tweak the software and plans to submit the product to Apple’s App Store for approval in the next few weeks.

The group hit on the idea for the tool during a “hackathon” sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, as part of the San Francisco nonprofit’s Summer of Smart initiative. The goal of the marathon brainstorming and programming sessions was to demonstrate how local government could harness the surplus of creative, technical minds in our own backyard, and how citizens could take the initiative to solve real city problems.

“In the past, you could vote, pay taxes or complain, and then you quickly run out of things you can do in a participatory democracy,” said Peter Hirshberg, chairman of the Gray Area Foundation. “This shows there are more ways of engaging.”

SMART Muni was one of four winning projects to emerge from the three coding sessions, which focused on things like community development, sustainability and public health. They will all be presented to the mayoral hopefuls at the Commonwealth Club debate on Thursday night. The candidates will be invited to respond to the ideas and discuss whether they would implement similar approaches.

Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate David Chiu said in an earlier interview that he would make city-sponsored hackathons a formal part of his administration.

“We can bring creative people from the technology world and other fields to come work with city staff to brainstorm solutions to the city’s problems,” he said.

More than 500 people participated in the Summer of Smart events starting in June, including programmers, designers, journalists, government staffers and community organizers.

The other winners include:

— Good Buildings, a Yelp-like app that “crowd sources” information about offices and other facilities, such as environmental ratings, energy efficiency and reviews from occupants.

— Market Guardians, a website that allows residents in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood to see or highlight which stores are carrying fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.

— Public Art Spaces, a service that matches artists with deteriorating public spaces, like vacant shop windows. “There are these huge beige walls and blank storefronts around the city, and all this space can be used creatively,” said Jake Levitas, director of research at the Gray Area Foundation.

Installing the artwork can beautify an otherwise dilapidated area and discourage graffiti, he said.

Pressuring officials

All of these ideas are great examples of Gov 2.0, the increasingly resonant notion that the model and tools of the technology industry can help (or arm-twist) public officials to become more responsive to residents’ needs.

Put another way: When the technology industry is flooding the market with free apps and citizens can crank out their own in 48 hours, it gets harder for government to set five-year tech timelines with a straight face. (And if they do, the plans better involve jet packs.)

It applies positive pressure on the monopoly of local government to hustle and produce like a private enterprise. It also sends a message to the average person that, believe it or not, you can take the initiative to tackle a civic shortcoming yourself.

“In the past when you had a problem with government, you protested,” said Jay Nath, director of innovation for the city. “Today, you’re writing your own” software.

Dot-commentary By James Temple runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Follow @jtemple on Twitter or e-mail [email protected].

This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle