San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says his city has experienced a great deal of smart city success with faster first response times and rapid delivery of citizen services.

Jul 09 2020

San Jose Invests in Smart City Tech as a Force Multiplier

The unofficial capital of Silicon Valley is improving services and preparing for the future with smart city solutions.

With a population of just over 1 million people, San Jose is the tenth-largest city in the United States, and yet Mayor Sam Liccardo says the city has the most “thinly staffed” government of any major metropolis in the country. That combination of big city and small staff is part of the reason officials have enthusiastically embraced innovation to improve city services.

“There’s some irony here,” says Liccardo, who first took office in 2015. “We have the most innovative community on the planet outside our door in Silicon Valley. The challenge is that inside City Hall, we are the most thinly staffed of any major city in the country, due to a host of fiscal challenges. I saw innovation as an imperative because we just didn’t have a sufficient number of human resources to provide services effectively to our community.”

That doesn’t mean city officials say yes to every project that comes their way. Earlier this year, Vice Mayor Charles “Chappie” Jones announced the new Innovation Zone that will be used as a sandbox of sorts to test out emerging technologies, and the city has partnered with technology companies for pilot projects. But for tech that will have a long-term impact on core city services, officials are focused on proven solutions. 

“We probably receive 40 contacts a week that we could explore, and we say no to almost all of them,” says San Jose CIO Rob Lloyd. “We’re hearing from vendors that solve a specific problem; we want platforms that make many hard things simpler to then leverage that simplification to meet other needs in an integrated manner.”

San Jose Undertakes a Digital Transformation

San Jose has won a number of honors for its smart city efforts. For instance, a centralized first responder solution deployed by the city won both a Smart 50 Award and an IDC Smart Cities North America Award. Previously, police and fire vehicles used a device to turn traffic signals green as they approached each intersection, forcing first responders to pause and check for crossing traffic as they made their way to emergencies.

“Roughly a quarter of injuries to first responders happen in transit, and you’re stopping at every intersection,” Lloyd notes. “Our Department of Transportation, fire department teams and vendor were brilliant in this work.”

By connecting emergency vehicles’ GPS to the city’s traffic management system, San Jose created a “halo” around response vehicles that preclears intersections. Firefighters have told city officials that the system is a game changer, and so far it has resulted on average in a 24-second reduction in response time per trip.

San Jose

San Jose's new traffic management system has helped speed up response times for first responders. Source: City of San Jose

The city has also received recognition for the way it now incorporates more data into its planning processes. Before, the city relied on old-fashioned paper maps and traffic count numbers, but officials realized that this process left out information from significant sources.

“We said, we’re going to try to avoid making infrastructure investments for a siloed problem that might be changing substantially because of what’s being planned and vetted and discussed across departments,” Lloyd says. “Our Department of Transportation team completed one project to use data to see how the integrated development view could support our work aiming to eliminate traffic accidents and fatalities. The insights were amazing.”

Perhaps the most noticeable change to residents has come in the form of a revamped customer relationship management system. Previously, the city relied on an error-prone and redundant process, with departments passing thousands of emails to one another as they tried to stay on top of each case. San Jose’s mayor and city council prioritized implementing a better solution.

The city moved to an omnichannel system centered on a mobile app and online portal called My San Jose (now San Jose 311). San Jose built its mobile app platform with Oracle Data Visualization and Oracle Service Cloud, among other technologies.

Now, residents can instantly submit requests for issues like potholes, broken streetlights, abandoned vehicles, graffiti and illegal dumping. The system receives over 150,000 requests per year, and it reduced duplicate entries for abandoned vehicles by about 20 percent.

The app is so easy to use that it has become a victim of its own success. “Many folks have complimented the newfound ease of contacting the city. For others, we started to see, if we didn’t resolve something in a day, residents would call us to scold us,” Lloyd says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how 5G networks will impact smart cities.

San Jose Uncovers Promising Innovative Ideas

Although the city favors proven solutions over highly hyped smart city technologies, San Jose has also seen success by giving people the freedom to experiment. Through fellowships, competitions and corporate partnerships, the city has uncovered a number of ­high-impact solutions.

One city fellow developed an algorithm to identify high-risk buildings for code enforcement. Another produced an algorithm that is highly accurate in predicting youth violence and potential blind spots. The winners of an “Unleash Your Geek” competition sponsored by the city came up with a drone that removes graffiti from highway overpasses. And Airbnb worked with the city to find hosts willing to provide space to homeless students.

15-30 minutes

Anticipated reduction in travel times for ­commuters by 2025 in large cities that deploy smart mobility applications

Source: McKinsey Global Institute, “Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Livable Future,” June 2018

Even when things don’t go perfectly, Liccardo says, the city sometimes still sees benefits. For instance, Facebook partnered with the city to test a solution to provide free Wi-Fi to residents, with the aim of ultimately deploying the technology in developing countries. The technology evolved from the original design, and the city is now using technology from the project to support its own public Wi-Fi efforts.

“We were happy to be the guinea pig, because Facebook was willing to contribute their resources and people,” Liccardo says.

Officials hope the new Innovation Zone on the city’s west side will spur further innovation. The district was announced in January, and the effort was put on hold shortly afterward due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the Innovation Zone has already attracted partners such as the scooter company Bird, which plans to use the area to test “anti-sidewalk” technology that would use sensors to keep scooters off city sidewalks.

It’s the sort of solution that could both protect pedestrians and help give residents an alternative form of transportation, says Cassidy Kohl, council policy and legislative director in the vice mayor’s office. “A big piece of this is community engagement,” Kohl says. “We want the community working alongside our office and our partners, to make sure these technologies are actually beneficial to them.”

Liccardo also emphasizes the importance of people power — both in neighborhoods and inside City Hall — to the success of San Jose’s smart city programs. “It’s not about the technology,” he says. “It’s really powered by the people. We already had brilliant people in the building. They just wanted to be unleashed to go create and innovate.”

Photography by Cody Pickens