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

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

Tech titans and startups are joining forces to identify ways technology can help address some of Seattle’s most pressing problems. The Innovation Advisory Council, announced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in August, is coming into focus ahead of its first meeting Thursday afternoon.

The council first launched with commitments from a handful of Seattle-area tech companies and organizations, including Amazon, Expedia, Microsoft, and Tableau. On Thursday, Durkan released the full list of participating companies and their representatives (see below). F5, Facebook, Twitter, Loftium, and the University of Washington are new additions.

The Innovation Advisory Council will identify issues where technology solutions might make a dent. Those solutions could come in the form of “data analytics, dashboards, applications, and software” according to the mayor’s office. Though it isn’t entirely clear how those improvements will go from idea to execution, the city says “members and their businesses will commit to helping deliver these technology solutions.”

When Durkan announced the council, she indicated that its members could work on issues like homelessness and traffic. As an example, she suggested an app that could coordinate entry into shelters for people on the streets.

“While technology alone cannot solve all of our challenges, it must be part of the holistic solution,” Durkan said in a statement.

But the Innovation Council has its skeptics. Candace Faber, who led civic tech initiatives for the City of Seattle’s IT Department from 2015-2017, believes it’s the wrong approach. “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 said.

Faber asserted that the initiative “has no clear purpose, goals, or metrics for accountability,” calling that “a major red flag.” She added, “Mayor Durkan should be able to explain exactly why she is forming this council, what it is for, which problems it will focus on, how and why these members were selected, and what the residents of Seattle can expect to get out of it.”

Candace Faber.

Seattle has no shortage of challenges that could use innovation. But Faber notes that civic tech hackathons have already produced plenty of solutions that haven’t been adequately funded.

“Those tools would need funding, staff, and integration into institutional business processes to be successful,” she said.

Some of the issues Durkan identified for the council, like traffic and rising cost of living, are exacerbated by rapid growth in the very industry that the mayor is tapping for advice. Zillow’s Rebekah Bastian, who sits on the Innovation Council, sees that as an opportunity.

“As a tech community, we have the talent, skills, and resources to create change, and it’s fantastic that we will have the chance to partner with city government in this space,” she said.

But the tech industry and Seattle leaders haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on the solutions to the city’s growing pains. Business leaders and the City Council spent the early part of this year embroiled in a battle over a tax on top-grossing companies to fund affordable housing that was eventually repealed.

In some circles, the tech industry is seen as a villain in the story of Seattle’s boom. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, is a fervent advocate for increasing taxes on wealthy Seattle-area residents and the city’s big tech companies.

“Here, we have the tragic irony of the two richest people of the world living right next to thousands of people with no homes at all,” she said in 2017, referring to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “And far from paying their fair share, Seattle’s wealthiest pay the least in taxes.”

As far as Faber’s concerned, tech workers, like all Seattle residents, deserve to participate in civic discourse. She puts the onus on city officials to do “the difficult day-to-day work of discovering what works and creating a culture of continuous improvement that includes exploring how we use technology.”

But WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler, a member of the new Innovation Council, says tech historically has not had a seat at the table in political conversations.

“Tech has been a political pinata,” he said. “It’s fabulous, for once, to be asked to help solve problems.”

Continue reading for the full list of Innovation Advisory Council members. Facebook also plans to send a representative but that individual has not yet been identified.

Co-Chair Aman Bhutani, Expedia
Co-Chair Andrew Beers, Tableau
Co-Chair Trish Millines Dziko, Technology Access Foundation
Co-Chair John Rousseau, Artefact
Tim Halladay, Amazon
Amy Wales, Artefact
Aravind Swaminathan, Cybersecurity Expert
Steve McChesney, F5
Heather Redman, Flying Fish
Yifan Zhang, Loftium
Laura Baga, Microsoft
Brian Kahrs, Twitter
Anind Dey, University of Washington
Vikram Jandhyala, University of Washington
Michael Schutzler, Washington Technology Industry Association
Graham Pruss, WeCount
Jonathan Sposato, WeCount
Rebekah Bastian, Zillow

[Editor’s Note: Jonathan Sposato is GeekWire’s chairman.]

Source: GeekWire

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