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The next round of the contest will look at how the city can improve the way it orders evacuations ahead of serious flooding.
A modified drone won the city of San José’s first-ever Unleash Your Geek contest challenging Bay Area innovators to develop technology capable of removing graffiti from highway overpasses faster and cheaper than the current $60,000 cost.
Graffiti Removal by Automatic Drone cofounders Christopher Farmer, the business manager, and Candace Marbury, a mechanical engineer, designed the device to spray paint over graffiti in inconvenient places.
The city fielded 140 submissions since May 2016, when the competition was announced, but only GRAD turned its solution into a full-fledged, private business.
“We were going to pick climate change or poverty, but we figured there are a lot of smart folks already working on those,” Mayor Sam Liccardo told Route Fifty by phone. “We wanted to identify discrete, solvable challenges that cities typically face.”
The more troublesome and irritating the problem, the better. And highway graffiti in California is both very difficult to handle logistically and inconvenient for drivers.
“You’ve got to close the freeway, which requires an act of Congress and an edict from the pope,” Liccardo said, joking about the bureaucratic hurdles.
Contests like these help cities “exercise their civic muscles,” the mayor said.
Four finalists were selected to build prototypes, before the winner was chosen. With a prototype already demoed, GRAD is working on second more forceful, more accurate iteration.
“The City of San José has stepped up and said we will be the testing ground if you can bring the right idea,” Farmer said in a statement. “This has empowered us to launch our own company, innovate a stagnant industry, and improve the community we live in.”
City staff wasn’t surprised a business came out of the competition, which serves as a platform for creative thinking to attract investors.
Caltrans employees often work in heavy highway traffic to remove graffiti, so GRAD’s drone could ultimately keep public workers and drivers safer in cities across the country. The state transportation agency, Microsoft, Prospect Silicon Valley and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation all partnered to help fund the initiative.
Unleash Your Geek is one in a series of civic tech ventures being rolled out across San José as part of its push to become a “demonstration city” to solve its problems and serve as a model for others. The “2.0 version” of the contest launched along with the announcement of the winner, and is focused on flooding of the magnitude San José experienced back in February when Coyote Creek overflowed its banks and into low-lying neighborhoods.
About 1,400 families were forced from their homes, so the city is seeking solutions that will help it pinpoint when to order evacuations with greater accuracy using LIDAR among other tech. Current methods relying on flow rates and channel capacity are “inadequate,” Liccardo said.
“It speaks to a larger opportunity for public sector leaders to reach out to our very creative communities and identify those challenges where we can use some collective innovation, and certainly in our case it helps to have San José State [University] nearby with lots of smart engineers and computer scientists,” the mayor said. “They were the majority of our contestants, but there are a lot of tinkerers out there that simply want to find a constructive outlet for their creative streak.”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.