Feature story: Building a 'digital city'

Palo Alto looks to hackers and social networks to transform City Hall

"The last thing you need is a bureaucracy," Steven Levy wrote in his landmark 1985 book, "Hackers."

"Bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed systems, dangerous in that they cannot accommodate the exploratory impulse of true hackers."

The line, which comes out of a chapter on "the hacker ethic," captures the historic tension between hackers and governments. The former are thought of as nimble, creative and committed to transparency, their secretive nature notwithstanding. The latter are often seen as sclerotic organizations that hoard information and take far too long to get anything done.

So there was something ironic and significant about Feb. 11, the night Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh rushed from Fraiche Yogurt to Stanford University's Arillaga Alumni Center, where about 30 software wizards worked their magic during a 24-hour "Hackathon." Participants split up into small teams, with each team working on a project that was pitched to members at the beginning of the event. Yeh's mission? To get to Fraiche before it closed at 11 p.m. and to deliver frozen yogurt to a three-member team of hackers working on a new digital tool for the city. He barely made it.

Two weeks later, during his State of the City Address, Yeh unveiled the result -- an online catalogue of every Palo Alto street, complete with its "Pavement Condition Index." Called StreetViewer, the website scores streets from 0 to 100; higher numbers indicate a better condition. This year, as Palo Alto embarks on its "year of infrastructure renewal and investment," the council is considering a recommendation from a specially appointed citizens committee to get every street in the city to a 60 or above, a tall task for a city with aged streets and years of projected budget deficits. The website also allows users to look up streets by scores and to snap and upload photos of their streets.

Though the street-repair project is a colossal multi-year affair, the speed at which StreetViewer was assembled is almost unheard of for a city as notoriously thorough as Palo Alto. And it could be a sign of the future. The project, Yeh said at the State of the City speech, "symbolizes our willingness to solve problems in a new way." He thanked the three Stanford students who coded through the night, and he put in a plug for the "Super Happy Block Party" -- a 12-hour hacker festival and coding party this Saturday in downtown Palo Alto, which the city is co-sponsoring. Yeh called this mash-up of government officials, artists and hackers "the next step in making city data available to technologists to create innovative solutions that benefit the community."

Palo Alto's newfound alliance with hackers is the latest evidence of a philosophical shift that has rumbled through City Hall over the past year. The shift is apparent when City Manager James Keene talks about his "open data" initiative; when the city's Facebook and Twitter updates flutter like snowflakes during council meetings; when the city's newly hired chief information officer (whose position didn't even exist last year) talks about exchanging the IT department's bulky email servers for a digital cloud; and when the council signs contracts with companies like OPower and rBlock for social-media tools that residents can use to keep track of, respectively, energy use and neighborhood news.

Some of these efforts have already borne fruit. StreetViewer, for example, went live last week, and city officials have just hosted their second "Twitter Q&A" event Thursday. Many other initiatives will be unveiled in the coming weeks and months as the city completely overhauls its much maligned website (long a sore spot for the city and a sorer one for the website's users), releases new sets of public data for local software wizards to fiddle with, further beefs up its social-media efforts and develops mobile apps aimed at making life a bit easier for local residents. If things go as planned, residents will soon be able to use their phones or tablets to pay parking fines, obtain permits and take photos of potholes or graffiti that they can instantly send to the city's Public Works Department. They will be able to open their laptops and take virtual tours of the city's public art or its bike paths. And if they don't like any of these efforts, they will have more digital tools than ever to give their elected officials an earful.

The movement is a convergence of several related trends. The City Council has been talking about getting residents more involved in city government for years (it even adopted "civic engagement" as an official priority in 2008 and 2009), and social media is a part of this strategy.

This is also the year when the council is focusing on slimming down the city's $42 million deferred-maintenance backlog and on replacing aged public-safety facilities -- an effort that will likely involve voter-approved bonds. The effort received a major boost in December with the release of the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force report -- a detailed survey that was put together by a 17-member citizen commission following 18 months of meetings. The report, which encompasses roughly 1,300 projects and 90,000 data entries, has given the city heaps of public data to play with -- data that the city would like to see transformed into more user-friendly modes (like StreetViewer). Keene's "open data" movement now has plenty of ammunition.

The city's fiscal situation also plays a major role in the shift. Though Palo Alto's tax revenues have rebounded after a Great Recession freefall, they are being outstripped by the sharply rising costs of employee pensions and health care. A recent financial forecast projects General Fund deficits of $2.1 million, $3.7 million and $4.1 million in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.

The financial pressures are forcing the city to come up with new and more efficient ways to deliver services, said Jonathan Reichental, the city's recently hired chief information officer.

"One obvious way you can tackle a problem is to throw more bodies and throw more money at it," Reichental said. "That's not the way of the future. We're not going to make the changes we need through this traditional path. You just start to incur more and more costs. You build more of a complexity which, in of itself, creates more cost.

"You've got to break out of that cycle. You've got to do things differently. That's the mindset I'm trying to bring here."


Reichental's physical office in many ways reflects his feelings about the office of the CIO. Its clean, minimalist aesthetic would have made Steve Jobs proud.

"I have a vision for the city, which is to build and enable a leading digital city," Reichental said at a recent interview. "Had you come to this office six months ago, there would have been large shelves, lots of large files, lots of old books. But really, everything we need to get our work done today we can digitize."

"I want to be a poster child for this for the city. I want to say, 'Come to my office and you'll see that, as best I can, I want everything to be digital.'"

Reichental is Palo Alto's first-ever chief information officer. He is an affable technologist with two decades in software design and a resume that includes stints at O'Reilly Media (which happens to be the publisher of "Hackers") and PricewaterhouseCoopers and a TEDx talk on digital privacy. He has contributed his thoughts on technology to NPR, CNBC and Forbes and various other national publications. Last year, he beat out close to 150 applicants for the new position, which he assumed in December.

"Silicon Valley, and Palo Alto specifically, have a particular meaning and a particular influence in IT innovation in the United States and, frankly, globally," he said, explaining his decision to accept the job. "It was a compelling area of work and a very compelling community of technologists and technology companies and entrepreneurs."

Now, he is shepherding the city's digital efforts and bridging the gap between City Hall and the city's rich ecosystem of software engineers, entrepreneurs and designers. He is also leading a 30-member team that until recently was subsumed in the bureaucracy of the city's Administrative Services Department. Last year, City Manager James Keene decided to make IT a standalone department and to create a cabinet-level position to oversee it. Now, in addition to keeping computers running at City Hall, the department is charged with re-invigorating the city's digital presence and leading the "open data" movement that Keene touted in a presentation to the City Council in the beginning of the year.

The movement, which sprouted out of discussions between Keene and Reichental, aims to harness the yottabytes of brainpower from Palo Alto's engineering community for what city officials often refer to as "social good." It's also a practical manifestation of Reichental's general philosophy about government data: It should be easily available to and accessible by the public.

"When we think about open data in the public domain, the vast majority of the data we have belongs to the public and we should treat it that way," he said. "Technology for several decades has not allowed ease of access. What we see is -- with the emergence of Internet technology -- the ease with which we create a channel that allows outside participants to consume data that lives within the organization now allows us to do new things. It has a terrific context in the public sector."

At times, as Reichental discusses his plans to revamp the IT department, he sounds like an Apple executive looking for ways to cut manufacturing costs. But instead of China, the recipients of the city's business would be companies like Google that provide cloud-based services at low or no cost. His vision calls for outsourcing the tedious nuts and bolts of the city's IT operation to private vendors and to rely on "freemium" services like Gmail -- services that offer basic services for free and then charge customers who want to go beyond the basics.

The city, which has about 1,000 employees, is far smaller than many of the private companies that rely on cloud-based business software, he noted recently. In some cases, he said, it could obtain products at a cost that is far lower than it currently incurs by running, patching and maintaining its own systems. He is also exploring subscriptions and pay-per-use models for obtaining IT services. In the coming months, he plans to upgrade the city's telephone systems and to replace most desktop computers at City Hall with laptops (which, he is quick to note, use 90 percent less energy). The point, he said, is to add flexibility, cut costs and get the city's small IT staff to focus on "higher-value work."

Virtuous hackers play a major role in this strategy.

"I don't have 10 software developers sitting outside who can work on this, but the city has amazing software engineers, some of the best of the world," Reichental said. "So we say, 'We'll give you the data. Can you help us build an app?' Because they want to. It's community service."

StreetViewer was the first example and is almost certainly not the last. Reichental came up with the idea (though not the name) for the product after Yeh mentioned the idea of participating in the Stanford event, which the mayor learned about through a Google search. Reichental quickly sketched out the idea on a storyboard and gave it to Yeh, who then pitched it to the Stanford students.

The three Stanford programmers worked through the night to slap the site together. It was refined in the coming days and went live this month at almost no cost to the city. Though it remains to be seen how many people use the new website (potholes are one of those things everyone cares about but few care to stare at), few can accuse the city of splurging or dragging its feet.

"This isn't your typical government six-month, 12-month or 18-month project," Reichental noted. "The only cost here is effort."

Other examples will flow from this initial offering. The city will soon be releasing new data sets and asking local software engineers for help in making sense of it all. Though officials have yet to decide exactly what data will be released, Reichental and Yeh were adamant in recent interviews that residents' privacy would be protected. Much like photos of local streets, the data would be utterly public in nature, they say.

Yeh said the focus of future products would likely be infrastructure. One idea, he said, is to create a searchable index for local sidewalks. Others include creating a digital tour of Palo Alto's public art or to create a website on which bicyclists equipped with helmet cameras can record their favorite local trails. The exact nature of future projects remains fuzzy, but city officials emphasize their development will be an "iterative process" with baby steps, frequent tweaks, private-sector involvement, resident feedback and little financial risk for the city (Yeh paid for the frozen yogurt from his own pocket).


The downtown Hackathon follows a similar model. Though the city is co-sponsoring the "Super Happy Block Party," it was pitched and organized by young, downtown-based companies well versed in the language of startups -- Innovation Endeavors and Talenthouse. One goal of the event, Yeh said, is to develop applications for the city. But Yeh said the event would also allow the city to send a message -- a pitch to coders to apply their talents for the social good.

The block party is also intended to create a forum for Palo Alto's creative types to mingle. The vision is to break the barriers between artists and coders, not to mention the traditional dividing line between hackers and their traditional nemesis -- the government.

"What we want is to create networking and to build on the magic that happens in Palo Alto between entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and the like," Reichental said.

Celestine Johnson, creative director of Innovation Endeavors, was thinking along the same lines two months ago. Her venture company occupies a suite on High Street, about two blocks from City Hall. Founded in 2010 by Eric Schmidt, the company invests in small startups with huge ideas ("Marginal change doesn't interest us," the company's LinkedIn page proclaims). Its recent investments include VideoGenie, a Menlo Park-based startup that offers users a video-management platform, and Shaker, a social network for real-time interaction.

"We focus on businesses that want to change the world," said Dror Berman, a managing partner at the firm, during a recent interview at the company's headquarters.

Johnson said she was walking down the street with Roman Scharf, co-founder of Talenthouse (a social network for creative talent), when the idea of closing down a downtown Palo Alto block for a hacking event occurred to them. The reaction from Yeh, Keene and Reichental was an enthusiastic: "Let's do it."

"We were blown away," Johnson said. "Typically, when you work with a government it's very slow and often frustrating. This time, it was a pretty amazing experience."

While it's too early to say whether technologists will respond to the call from City Hall, Jeffrey Risberg sees plenty of upside in the city's effort to harness private-sector talent.

Risberg is the cofounder of TIBCO Software, a Palo Alto-based tech giant that specializes in infrastructure software and cloud computing. After leaving TIBCO, he took a break for three months before diving back into the world of startups and technology. A veteran software engineer and a serial entrepreneur, he now advises two startup companies, InsideVault and RallyOn. The latter company, which makes games with a health care theme, just moved into its new Menlo Park headquarters last week.

Risberg is also working with the city to solve one of its most pressing, complicated and divisive questions: What to do with the city's waste? The subject has risen to the forefront in the past three years as Palo Alto closed down its landfill at Byxbee Park and began exploring the feasibility of building a waste-to-energy plant in the Baylands. The debate over the new plant culminated in Measure E, a ballot measure that voters approved in November that "undedicates" a 10-acre parcel in Byxbee Park and makes it available for the new waste plant. The plant would convert organic waste, compost and possibly biosolids into energy.

Risberg operates on both sides of the startup-bureaucracy divide. He has participated in seven Hackathons (including the Feb. 11 event at Stanford), both as a coder and as an entrepreneur looking for coders. As part of his work with Sustainable Silicon Valley, Risberg is now working with Stanford graduate students and a panel of environmental experts to evaluate the impacts of the proposed anaerobic-digestion plant on Palo Alto and surrounding cities. The panel includes Phil Bobel, Palo Alto's assistant director of Public Works.

"The graduate students are developing new technologies for environmental treatment," Risberg said. "No city operates on its own. What we did was come up with a tool that would help measure and model the potential benefits of utilizing these technologies and how they would impact waste streams around the City of Palo Alto."

Though the project involves a collaboration of public agencies, private interests and Stanford coders, it is nothing like StreetViewer. The complexities of coming up with a model to track environmental impacts of waste-management technologies is such that progress can only be measured in years, not weeks, Risberg noted. But much like the StreetViewer, it suggests that Palo Alto's effort to tap into the altruistic impulses of its hacker community could pay off in a big way.

Risberg, for one, believes the city is on to something good. Many major corporations now have pro bono sections in their business operations. Some companies also follow the Microsoft model of giving employees time off to work on social issues.

"I think it'll be a very valid model," Risberg said. "I believe the City of Palo Alto is tapping into a very useful stream."


Palo Alto's digital revolution will not be televised. It will, however, be streamed on the city's website, which is now going through a wholesale makeover.

The current website,, perfectly captures many of the qualities that frustrate residents when it comes to local government. It is static, text-heavy and loaded with bland stock images. A user who clicks on the link to "Know Zone" (the online depository of staff reports, press releases and project updates) is greeted by a large photo of an empty Council Chambers -- as good a symbol as any of the site's "civic engagement" factor.

The site's redesign has been a laborious multi-year process involving staff and an advisory committee of citizen volunteers. Though the site has seen gradual tweaks over the past few years, a typical user would see little change other than the fact that the background changed from black to white.

In the coming weeks, the city will roll out the beta version of the city's new site. Though officials are coy about discussing the new features before the official release, the site will feature more videos, brighter colors, analytics galore and a prominent social-media component. Reichental said the city will "soft launch" it by offering on the existing site a link to the new site and giving the users a choice as to which site to use.

Reichental said the launching of the city's revamped site, much like most of its new digital initiatives, should be an iterative process with lots of user feedback and frequent revisions -- small steps leading toward major changes.

The "iterative" philosophy also applies to social media. On Feb. 27, Yeh, Keene and Reichental hosted the city's first Twitter Q&A, a 30-minute tweet-fest that allowed residents to pose questions and receive answers in 140 characters or less. The first questioner wrote, "Govts have a tremendous chance to leverage operational data to provide better svcs to citizens.What opps do u see for PaloAlto?"

Keene responded in the cryptic language typical of Twitter exchanges: "Open data to public = grassroots solutions."

Other participants asked Yeh and Keene about things like bike sharing, the California Avenue streetscape project and city priorities. After eight questions, time was up.

Reichental called the first Twitter Q&A a "decent first go" that provided two valuable lessons.

"Maybe we shouldn't do it during the day, when people are working and are otherwise distracted," he said. "Also, 30 minutes just seemed to fly."

They decided to schedule the next Twitter Q&A for the evening and to make it an hour-long event, he said. Though the primary goal of the event is to answer residents' questions, there is also the broader goal of building buzz around the city's digital presence.

"Whether you're a city or a big billion-private company, when you don't have champions, when you don't have people who believe in this stuff and really maintain it, and evangelize the benefits and keep it current, that's going to be a massive weakness.

"One of the reasons I'm following up with the Twitter Q&A is that I want to build momentum," Reichental said. "I want to build the zeitgeist about doing government differently."

Related story:

Hackers plan to take over downtown Palo Alto block


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm

At least it doesn't say that he demands to be called "DOCTOR Reichental" which the City's press release on his hiring seemed to imply, which would make it seem even more like something out of a Stanley Kubrik movie.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Here is a link to a movie from Kubrick that may or may not provide context to the Weekly's report:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by RadioGuy
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm

That's a nice picture of Mr. Reichental. I didn't know that the City ran a living computer history museum. Isn't that a Spectracom 8182 WWVB radio controlled clock with the glowing red numbers along the left side the picture? I hope somebody told him that it will no longer work after NIST changes to phase modulation this summer (see: Web Link). Moving to the cloud? Heck, he looks like he'd be happy moving to the 21st century!

Like this comment
Posted by (V)eritas
a resident of University South
on Mar 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm

"Reichental is Palo Alto's first-ever chief information officer."
For what it's worth, and to be fair, Retired Palo Alto CIO, Glenn Loo, is Palo Alto's first ever Chief Information Officer. Loo served for 9 years and, as a recent highlight, made the City of Palo Alto 1 of the 4 municipalities recognized in CIO magazine's 2010 top 100. Cheers!

Like this comment
Posted by skeptic
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Is this guy serious! talk about Delusions Of Grandeur
But I think the nazi picture is a bit harsh!

Like this comment
Posted by dave
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 31, 2012 at 12:13 am

Can we get better connectivity/internet service options, e.g. fiber optic, etc. other than AT&T or Comcast before proclaiming that we are building a digital city?

Like this comment
Posted by bt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 31, 2012 at 8:20 am

the city was headed in the wrong direction prior to reichentals arrival. now that he is there, hopefully they'll stop selling out to corporate interests (AT&T towers)

i hope he can bring the city free digital wireless internet as his priority once he cleans the mess loo made

Like this comment
Posted by Lost-In-LA-LA-Land
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2012 at 8:04 am

This is the fundamentally wrong approach to delivering anything meaningful. Cities are not Silicon Valley startups--they have continuity that lasts, essentially, forever. Startups last as long as the cash, or interests of the owners, lasts. And then poof! .. gone in the flash of an eye.

The reasons that governments have bureaucracies is to ensure this continuity. Students in Universities have no concept of the real world--having come to believe that they have the charter to "change it"--when in fact, they have no such charter.

This guy will be gone in a couple of years--a lot of flash will be all that he leaves in his wake. Social networks and "hackers" are the last thing that a City needs as the basis for its information infrastructure elements.

Like this comment
Posted by zimbu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Gennady, how much did Dr. Reichental pay you for this puff piece? I don’t know if he demands to be called DR. Reichental, but his emails have this at the bottom:
Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D. :: Chief Information Officer :: City of Palo Alto

And Gennady, what do you know about Steve Jobs other than what you read in his biography? Comparing Jobs and Reichental in any way is a sacrilege.

BTW, the beta version of the web site is even worse than the current site. “… the city's rich ecosystem of software engineers, entrepreneurs and designers” doesn’t seem to know much about building web sites.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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