SF’s Mid-Market gets Tech Aid to Lift its Fortunes

A public-private San Francisco group wants to harness the city’s tech savvy and use it to improve the quality of life in the Mid-Market area.

Creative Currency, a partnership among the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, Hub Bay Area, American Express and the Mayor’s Office of Innovation, is challenging participants over the next six months to come up with ways technology can stimulate local employment, coordinate social services and chip away at the digital divide.

“We haven’t seen this level of civic engagement since the ’60s and ’70s,” said Jake Levitas, research director for the arts foundation. “It’s time to use the digital and technical world to help us deepen that engagement and address issues that really need to be curated.”

The effort kicked off in April with a “hackathon” to get the creative juices flowing among members who will develop projects and compete for $15,000 in seed money and a chance to exhibit at SOCAP12, an international conference of social-impact innovators to be held in San Francisco in October.

That amount happens to be more than the household income of more than 31 percent of homes in the Mid-Market area, where about 39,000 people live, according to Creative Currency’s research.

It was just that digital divide that prompted the project, said Jay Nath, chief innovation officer for San Francisco.

“There are concentrated populations within our own city that don’t have access to the digital tools that most of us have become accustomed to,” he said.

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim said she is hoping to integrate new companies with the existing community.

Airbnb, an online, peer-to-peer marketplace for short-term stays, is one such company that has joined the effort.

The 4-year-old San Francisco site is rethinking its platform in terms of social impact and how unused items can be shared between neighbors.

Molly Turner, company director of public policy, said she envisions local service groups using Airbnb to share information on available shelter beds, cars, bikes, tools, cooking materials – even volunteer time.

Twitter and Square also are on board.

Each company will play a different role, said Jonathan Axtell, co-organizer of Creative Currency and strategic adviser to the Hub. Some might offer mentorship, access to developers and technical expertise, while others will build employee volunteering programs.

The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts previously conducted a similar project in New York, the Great Urban Hack.

“We are playing the role of the connector, a translator, the central node, bringing together this collaboration,” Levitas said. “And looking at a community that is a meeting of cultures, what happens at the edges, at these meeting points, is fascinating.”

That point of exchange is what inspired the name, Axtell said.

“Currency implies transactions. That is how people pay each other, the systems of exchange,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to think differently about how communities interact, how they value what they exchange between each other.”

The project is expected to develop into a crowdsourced model where the best solutions for the Mid-Market area will be supported and funded.

The first step was a community brief that surveyed 155 residents, 37 businesses and 16 service groups in an attempt to gather “citizen-driven data.”

Aside from the four principal partners, Creative Currency has sparked engagement from other Bay Area businesses and nonprofits such as Omidyar Network, Kiva.org and Eventbrite.

Ultimately, Axtell said, Creative Currency could serve as a tech-savvy model for other cities to fight urban inequalities around the world.

Esha Chhabra is a freelance writer. [email protected]

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