Seattle’s biggest tech companies unveil 7 city projects built by controversial Innovation Council

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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan launched her Innovation Advisory Council at Zillow in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a new advisory council of tech leaders in 2018, the reaction was mixed, to say the least.

It was a charged time — just two months after the city’s ugly battle with the business community over a tax on big business — and critics said the council gave even more influence to tech without much oversight.

Things have been pretty quiet in the months that followed, giving weight to skepticism that the Innovation Advisory Council was more about PR than problem-solving. But now members of the council are showing they mean business.

Related: Can tech fix Seattle? Facebook, Twitter and others join new innovation council amid debate over group’s role

This week, Durkan’s office plans to unveil seven technology projects built for the city in partnership with companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia, and others. The services range from earthquake detection, to apps that help homeless service providers improve coordination, to youth career development tools. GeekWire got a first look at the project descriptions, which you can read below.

“I think there is a misconception that we’re just building widgets or apps that are going to miraculously solve a problem that a human can’t,” said Tableau CTO Andrew Beers, a co-chair of the council. “But actually the opposite is true — we’re really looking at ways we can be an asset to the people serving in city government … helping city staff use technology to help take decision timelines from weeks to minutes, and to explore data to identify trends or insights that wouldn’t otherwise have been seen.”

Most of the projects are designed to live on city systems — except for one. Zillow Group is building an app to help people in need of affordable housing find units and connect with landlords in one place. The tool will live on the Zillow platform in perpetuity and the Seattle tech company is seriously considering scaling it to other cities.

“As with all of our products, we have plans to scale it after we are able to do rigorous testing to assure it is working correctly,” said Zillow VP of Community and Culture Rebekah Bastian in an email. “Our hope is to partner in other cities with the on-the-ground experts (the way we have in Seattle), to ensure that we are scaling in a way that is supportive of the unique infrastructure of each city.”

Office buildings and cranes dot the Seattle skyline. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

The Innovation Advisory Council is one of the first of its kind in the nation, according to Kate Garman, the mayor’s technology policy advisor. Durkan created the council this past August with delegates from the companies mentioned above, as well as the Technology Access Foundation, Artefact, F5, Facebook, Flying Fish Partners, Loftium, Twitter, and others.

Following the announcement, the council met and the city identified seven projects that could benefit from tech workers’ time and expertise. From there, city employees and representatives of the companies formed teams around each project and built them using a technology stack that Seattle officials already knew how to use.

“We know that government can’t solve all our challenges by itself,” Durkan said in a statement to GeekWire. “Technology can’t either. But we can do more if we tap into the amazing talent in Seattle. We must learn from each other and find ways to work better together.”

Seattle IT is acting as a coordinator to ensure that there is a plan to migrate each project to city servers. The tech workers volunteered their time and no public dollars were spent on the projects, according to Garman.

In addition to unveiling the projects, this week is launching a website dedicated to the Innovation Advisory Council where other companies can get involved and citizens can learn about the projects underway.

“If we get this right, it means we can get shelter and services to people who need them faster, identify ways to keep our roads from jamming up, and even save lives in the face of a major earthquake,” said Beers. “We think these things matter and are happy to do our part for our community.”

But some experts warn Seattle’s biggest problems aren’t so easily addressed by technology. When the IAC formed, Candace Faber, a former Seattle IT employee who ran civic initiatives, published a blog post challenging “the notion that homelessness can be fixed with an app.”

“If the answer to our problems was an app, it wouldn’t be so hard to come up with that app idea or get it built,” she told GeekWire at the time.

When the first round of projects is complete, the council will work together to explore new ideas to tackle. That due diligence will include a series of knowledge exchanges in which city employees and tech workers will give talks and sit on panels to educate one another on their work and needs.

“The partnerships emerging from IAC programming will have lasting change by growing the opportunity to work across industries in how we approach challenges and create solutions,” Durkan said in a statement. “These first seven projects are just the beginning.”

Continue reading for details on each project. 

Affordability Portal

Summary: The affordability portal connects low-income Seattleites with benefits and resources they are eligible for to lower the cost of living in the city. Built with help from 30 Expedia employees, the portal includes an open source benefits calculator. The IAC expects to have a minimum viable product done by May.

Tech industry partners: Expedia, Tableau, F5

City partners: Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, Human Services Department, Department of Education and Early Learning

Affordable Housing Search App

Summary: Zillow is working with the Seattle Office of Housing and Housing Connector to develop a centralized app for Seattleites searching for an affordable place to live. The Affordable Housing Search Tool will live on Zillow in perpetuity and the company is interested in scaling it to other cities. The tool connects affordable housing property owners and social service providers with people exiting homelessness or searching for low-income housing.

Tech industry partners: Zillow, Housing Connector (Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce)

City partners: Seattle Office of Housing

Homelessness Data Model

Summary: The Homelessness Data Model automates a manual process used to track and measure the performance of contracts with homeless service providers. The project is on track to be completed by the end of May.

Tech industry partners: Amazon, Tableau, University of Washington Information School Capstone Program

City partners: Human Services Department

NavTeam 2.0

Summary: The next generation of the app used by Seattle’s Navigation Team will improve data sharing and reporting with homeless service providers.

Tech industry partner: Microsoft

City partners: Human Services Department, Seattle IT

Earthquake Early Warning

Summary: Participants in this project are building a prototype early earthquake warning system. The Earthquake Early Warning project will serve as a beta test to prepare for the launch of a broader warning system in the Pacific Northwest. Information gleaned from the project will be shared with the United States Geological Survey.

Tech industry partners: Amazon Web Services, Twitter

City partner: Office of Emergency Management

Earthquake Damage Assessment

Summary: This tool will help the city analyze damage from previous earthquakes to inform emergency response decisions going forward. It relies on existing tools such as Seattle’s Find It, Fix It app.

Tech industry partners: Amazon Web Services, Twitter

City partner: Office of Emergency Management

Youth Opportunity Portal

Summary: Seattleites between the ages of 12-24 will be able to access all of the city’s employment and development opportunities through this portal, centralizing the programs under one application system.

Tech industry partners: Technology Access Foundation, Microsoft, Facebook

City partners: Mayor’s Office Policy Team, Office of Economic Development, Human Services Department, Parks & Recreation

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