It was a typical Silicon Valley storyline: Someone got an idea and met someone else who could code. They assembled a small team and built a prototype, got a bit of seed funding, won some acclaim, got a few breaks, met some powerful CEOs, and developed dreams of scaling while searching for an angel with a generous bank account.
The only twist is that the connections were sparked not at Buck's of Woodside, Philz or Starbucks but at an event orchestrated by City Hall, which up to now has not had a reputation as the bastion of innovation. The event, the Palo Alto Apps Challenge, was a five-month competition like nothing the city had ever tried before. Launched in early 2014, the contest netted 74 submissions, 30 percent of which were from residents 18 and under, said Jonathan Reichental, the city's chief information officer. Part American Idol, part slow-motion hackathon, the Apps Challenge was the city's way to get people pumped up about Palo Alto and, if possible, to create some nifty new civic tools.
One such tool is AdoptMe!, the brainchild of Cynthia Typaldos, an entrepreneurial dog lover who wanted to take the anonymity out of pet adoption. Through social media, the app builds a story line for each animal in a participating shelter. The premise is simple: When shelter volunteers play with a pet, they take photos and post messages of the pet in action. Over time, this string of messages and photos adds up to a crowd-sourced biography that reflects the pet's personality and, presumably, makes it more adoptable.
In early 2014, Typaldos had an idea but not much else. She reached out to Reichental, who encouraged her to submit it in the contest. Later, at a reception he connected her with Helena Merk, a high school sophomore with coding skills who also had a submission in the App Challenge. Before long, they had a team working on AdoptMe! and a prototype.
The reviews were positive. In April, AdoptMe! was one of nine ideas to make it to the finals round. During the May 31 finale (a gala featuring pep talks from city leaders, video clips showcasing each of the finalists, a mostly young studio audience and a musical interlude during which observers cast their votes), it won second place. The winner was Play Palo Alto, a game designed by Italian app-developer Francisco Ferraro that allows users to pick up "experience points" through volunteering.
For Reichental, the hacking contest was a huge success and a prime example of the city's quest to encourage citizen involvement. The apps, he noted, "were meaningful and thoughtful," whether they were submitted by residents aged 14 or 64. Solutions were at once idealistic and practical. An app called Go CO2 Free Palo Alto!, designed by local environmentalist Lisa Altieri, allows residents to measure their energy use. Another one, called Enabled City, aims to make it easier for disabled residents to identify amenities that would make getting around easier. The brainchild of Slovakian resident Michael Simkovoc, the app won third place (Reichental said this app, which hasn't launched yet, has taken more time to develop than others because of technical complications).
Like in all of its other recent digital endeavors, the App Challenge was a bold and time-consuming experiment for City Hall ("I never thought I'd find myself in the position of being Ryan Seacrest," Reichental told the Weekly). In this case, it's one that paid off well, he said.
"In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised, because the heartbeat of the city is innovation and thinking big and taking risks," Reichental said. "But on the other hand, we've never done anything like this before and I was absolutely thrilled, as were many folks and leaders across the city, with the results."
Typaldos said the App Challenge was "absolutely critical" to further her idea. The Humane Society of Silicon Valley, a Milpitas-based branch of the animal-welfare nonprofit, has since adopted her app.
"Users are very passionate about it," Typaldos told the Weekly. "Animals have been adopted because of it."
In November, the team received a Technology Hero award from American Red Cross, an award that Typaldoes said was a "huge boost for us, in terms of credibility and also recognition."
Now, her team is looking far beyond Silicon Valley to RSPCA Australia. It helps that the vast Down Under network (which has an army of volunteers and hundreds of shelters) uses the same animal database as the local Humane Society (the app cannot currently accommodate shelters that don't use this database, which is why the Palo Alto shelter is not among the early adopters). The group is also talking to other Bay Area animal organizations and has a goal of spreading to 50 shelters in the next year.
There are, of course, plenty of hurdles. As with any other startup, funding is an issue. The mostly volunteer team is considering possible sponsorship opportunities, though that has yet to materialize.
"Everyone is working hard, but to really expand and to be successful, we need some angels to step up and help us do the expansion," Typaldos said.
In recent months, Typaldos has found another willing partner closer to home. Last year, as part of an effort to promote civic engagement, residents were invited to meet city officials at coffee shops and pizza parlors. It was at one such meeting, at Philz on Middlefield Road, that Typaldos found herself talking to Fire Chief Eric Nickel and telling him about her idea. Over the course of the conversation, they came up with another use for the AdoptMe! app -- a way to give residents a glimpse into their local fire stations.
Over the past few years, as the fire department has conducted surveys of residents and stakeholders, a common theme emerged, Nickel said. People thought the department was "great," but they didn't know a lot about what it actually does. Most people, Nickel said, believe that firefighters rush out to fires now and then but then spend most of the downtown in the station, playing cards or just waiting for the next call.
"People just don't know that we're super busy during the day, that it's our busiest time for calls and it's also when we're training, doing fire inspections, doing risk-reduction activities," Nickel said.
One way to correct this could be to detail its day-to-day activities using the same type of mechanism that Typaldos brought to animals up for adoption. The engagement would be a two-way street, with the firefighters also getting to know the people on the block.
"It's a great way for us to know, for example, who is going to be at the park this weekend for a community event," Nickel said. "It would be great to just drive by, pass out red plastic hats for kids, maybe engage with the kids a bit. Maybe there is a gathering where we can go in and talk to people about our PulsePoint app (which provides alerts about emergencies and includes CPR instructions), or describe how AEDs (automatic external defibrillators) work. It's just a good way for us to get to know the neighborhood better, and vice versa."
Whether or not AdoptMe! spreads to foreign shelters or local fire stations, the app has already succeeded in one way: It has prompted conversations between residents and City Hall about ways to improve the city. Reichental told the Weekly that he was initially a skeptic about hackathons. These kinds of things, he said, happen all over the world: People get together, have a little fun and nothing ever happens. That's what made last year's App Challenge so valuable.
"I'd argue that getting people together, elevating the topic of civics, getting people involved in the city is an end game and a state of success all on its own," Reichental said. "If a product is built and delivered -- that's like gravy."