A new movement was launched this September. A movement to intersect our world’s most pressing urban challenges with our most cutting-edge technology. A movement to envision how augmented reality could be used for social good. A movement called citizenAR.
On September 30, university teams from around the country, including as far away as Penn State, convened at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in the Tenderloin district of downtown San Francisco. Their mission: to develop conceptual ideas for how an augmented reality app could improve the lives of youth in the Tenderloin, and to present these ideas to a panel of elite judges after only ten hours of development. My previous posts on the planning for this event have discussed the big ideas that drove its creation—on that Saturday, we saw how it all came together, and how these abstractions manifested themselves in real proposals.
The day began with a welcome from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, thanking the students for their involvement and encouraging the event in its endeavors. Then the teams were off, working energetically (and frantically) to generate and develop their ideas. The vibes in the room were electric.
Although this idea-athon was modeled on tech hackathons, citizenAR’s emphasis on “intersections” demanded an interdisciplinary approach. With students in a diverse array of programs—business schools, public policy schools, engineering schools, computer science programs, game design programs—we knew that not everyone would have the same level of knowledge about every subject that was part of citizenAR. Thus, the day was interspersed with lightning training sessions on topics important to the success of an idea. We started with the love story between augmented reality and cities, and how PokemonGo was the first chapter in this tale. There followed a panel on urban sustainability, design, and equity in technology education. Then, spaced throughout the day, were presentations and mentoring sessions about gamification, user research, and pitching.
The highlight of these lightning sessions was the lunch, when the college students were joined by several Tenderloin youth who opened up about what difficulties they face in their daily lives and what they would like to see improved about their neighborhood. The youth then served as judges for a special people’s choice award.
At six o’clock, the buzzer sounded, and teams moved to the stage to deliver their pitches. There was a wide breadth of proposals, from apps that turned bus commutes into interactive entertainment experiences to augmented reality mapping that colored the streetscape according to emotion. Most rewarding were the proposals that took a key insight from conversations with the Tenderloin youth and developed that insight into a larger idea. For instance, one team discovered that, while the kids had smartphones, they were hesitant to take them out of their pocket while on the street; their developed proposal became an app that communicated kid-to-kid through a call-and-response of tapping the phone and having the phone vibrate. Another team paid attention to what the youth themselves stated was their top complaint: unclean and dangerous streets with unpredictable pockets of crime or violence they had to avoid; that team’s proposal was for an augmented reality path that used crowd-sourced data to guide pedestrians on the safest route to their destination.
Out of many outstanding proposals, the winning teams were: UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley’s School of Information Systems, UC Davis’ Hackers Club, and the Academy of Art University. All teams will have the opportunity to compete for a $10,000 follow-on grant that will help turn one technology-driven, urban sustainability, social good solution into reality.
In addition, a nonprofit organization called Tech in the Tenderloin (TNT) has been started in collaboration with the Salvation Army Kroc Center to further the impact begun by citizenAR. They are already planning their first season of technology programming for the guests of the Tenderloin Kroc Center.
It was a privilege to help organize an event that, I hope, will continue to have ripples of impact through the tech, urbanism, game, and Tenderloin communities.