Arriving late to the Pier 38 offices of Automattic yesterday evening for a mayoral candidate forum on Open Government, we caught the tail end of opening remarks from a panel comprised of the nine candidates for mayor that people actually take seriously. The polite debate that followed ostensibly focused on the vague topic of technology, but actually drifted everywhere from Treasure Island development to smartphone apps for Muni Operators. Mostly it was an opportunity for these candidates to see who could toss around the most buzzwords without sounding like a complete tool while their media team set their thumbs on fire tweeting updates and pull-quotes to loyal Internet followers.
A brief note on forum moderator Mitch Kapor: According to his bio, Mitch "has been at the forefront of information technology for 30 years" and is best known for creating the first popular spreadsheet program (Lotus 1-2-3). So Kapor was an excellent moderator because spreadsheet programs, much like city government, seem fairly simple at first but always turn out to be a huge pain in the ass to work with. (Only nerds and masochists enjoy spreadsheets and city government, is what we're getting at here.) Kapor also had a key role in creating Second Life - a virtual bubble world where people can pretend to be someone they're not and proposition strangers for all kinds of kinky cybersex. Actually, Kapor should probably be running for mayor now that we think about it.
The forum itself got a rough start: the livestream crashed at one point, leaving the viewers at home scrambling. A malfunctioning microphone meant candidates were yelling until it finally kicked in thanks to Tony Hall's magic touch. The newly amplified Hall asked the audience, "should I sing a song or something?" To which we have to say: YES, Tony Hall. You should just sing all the time. If you're elected mayor, will you promise to show up at Board Meetings once a month to serenade everyone?
The Sinatra-voiced former supe also had a tendency to answer the moderator's questions My Way, as it were. Hall managed to steer his answers towards hot-button (but unrelated) issues like Treasure Island, Parkmerced and Pension reform while dodging specifics. Data, he said vaguely, is no good if the leadership doesn't know what to do with it. He cited the example of 1,500 people were being displaced from Parkmerced because the voices of 15 lobbyists were louder than all of the residents combined.
The most frustrating part though, were the candidates who insisted on looking backwards and touting their track records (as candidates tend to do) rather than discussing the necessary forward motion (you know, the technology and innovation part). Michela Alioto-Pier, for one, brought up her time working in the Clinton White House more than once. Did you know she was there when Al Gore taught Bill Clinton how to use a computer with a mouse in 1992? The correct answer to that question is: "No one cares, Michela." 1992 was nearly 20 years ago. The majority of the yesterday's audience would have been roughly ten years old at the time and couldn't give a flying toaster what you were doing in 1992. (Also, who still uses a mouse? People with city-issued workstations probably.)
Likewise, Leland Yee reminded everyone that he and Tom Ammiano co-sponsored the legislation that brought about the Sunshine Ordinance. Congratulations, Senator Yee, making records and data publicly available was a great move that opened up government. Unfortunately, it did little to allow regular people to interact with it - which is the point we're at now. Access to the data isn't the issue anymore: it's how we can use that data for something other than nerded-out, insidery blog posts.
To that point, there were some efforts to look forward, but even those mentions showed a lack of understanding on the issue. Yee mentioned more than once his idea to create a "neighborhood social network" without actually explaining what that meant. (Probably because it doesn't mean anything.)
Venture capitalist Joanna Rees, in her Silicon Valley biz-casual uniform (blazers over denim), dropped "platform" and "API" so many times you might have thought she was pitching for a round of funding from some angel investors in the audience. (Actually, if we're gonna run with that metaphor, Joanna's biggest investor might be the city itself - she qualified for up to $900,000 in public funding.) Rees also suggests we arm our muni operators with apps, which is not only incredibly vague, but sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Meanwhile, John Avalos' progressive heart nearly bled out. The supervisor pointed out that his district, the Excelsior, doesn't even have Nextbus. That's admittedly tragic, but it's even worse when you realize that the limited number of Nextbus signs were probably placed at Muni shelters based on some set of data that Nextbus or SFMTA already had. If there aren't enough riders in the Excelsior to justify the cost, who would pay to provide such luxuries? Obviously, that sort of service should be available all over the Muni system, but when there's limited funding an overabundance of data is not always your friend. Especially if you're letting someone else with a different bottom line interpret it for you.
Somewhere in the middle were those who are actually putting some real ideas out there. David Chiu's proposal to light up the miles of dark fiber the city owns makes so much sense that we were (almost) able to overlook all the times he congratulated himself for wins like the Twitter tax break (which Avalos reminded us he voted against, by the way) and his upcoming InnovateSF fundraiser.
Bevan Dufty was by far the most entertaining member of the panel. When the discussion inevitably turned to technology and Muni, he pointed out that the current control center looks like something out of Flash Gordon - which most of his audience might not remember looks like a Queen video. He'd also like to put a webcam in the Mayor's office (probably the best idea we've heard, ever) and he's readily available via email, should you wish to reach him.
Phil Ting was kind of a dud. He plugged ResetSanFrancisco.org so often that it seems like he's more interested in web traffic than actual votes. Cool it, Phil, if you say something worthwhile, you'll get all the web hits and Facebook friends you can stand.
Oh and Dennis Herrera was there, mostly to remind us that: A. a lot of the Muni cameras don't actually function (he knows, because he has to settle all of Muni's lawsuits) and B. He manages a lot of people (and that has something to do with technology).
There was one thing everybody agreed on though: we're all still waiting on that municipal WiFi.Look at all these nerds getting Sunshined