Pittsburgh tries to move quickly to be tech-friendly

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Pittsburgh is in an arms race with Boston to become the most tech-friendly city government in the nation, Councilman William Peduto declared yesterday. Boston was the first to announce its own iPhone app, but Pittsburgh will do the same, as well as unveil other first-of-its-kind improvements to "e-democracy" using the savvy of local tech firms.

"Our role now is to beat Boston, and not just beat them, but knock their socks off," he said at a special council session yesterday.

Boston officials announced this week that they will soon be launching an iPhone application allowing citizens to take digital pictures of potholes, graffiti and other nuisances and send them to City Hall, along with Global Positioning System data pinpointing their locations.

Mr. Peduto said the city, with the support of the Ravenstahl administration, wants to do the same kind of thing, along with a raft of other technological improvements, in an attempt to make Pittsburgh the leading edge in local government technology.

The plan, he said, is to let local tech firms use the city for new media and technology methods for government, as well as provide residents with new connections and insight into local government functions.

That means contracting with local firms to provide searchable videos of government meetings, creating phone applications to provide mobile access to meetings and city offices, and adopting methods allowing for instant polling and feedback on council actions. Or it could be as simple as letting community groups live-stream their meetings with software from the South Side firm Vivo, so people could watch them online.

"Imagine your neighborhood community meeting isn't just in the church basement, it's in your living room," Mr. Peduto said.

The Shadyside councilman and council finance chair said funding for the improvements can largely be covered by a $52,000 line item already in the 2009 city budget. With the help of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, he may lobby for small foundation grants to help pay for the community functions.

The goal is to have the technology in place by the end of the year.

City Information Systems Director Howard Stern said the Ravenstahl administration is "excited and delighted" to be a part of the improvements, noting that it is already working with Carnegie Mellon University to allow the city's 311 complaint line to auto-route calls using voice recognition technology. The city has received 30 bids for live video streaming, which will be opened later this month.

The Pittsburgh Penguins currently use "YinzCam" technology from Carnegie Mellon professor Priya Narasimhan, which ships video replays and other data to mobile phone users inside Mellon Arena during games. She said similar technology could let city residents watch government meetings on their phones, send GPS-embedded complaints or get targeted alerts of government actions, filtered by each user's neighborhood or other personal information.

Other local firms at yesterday's session included Panopto Inc., which specializes in searchable data within videos, and MyGov365, a political social network platform that creates links between government officials and constituents.

Mr. Peduto's goal for adopting the new technologies in just six months may prove to be aggressive. His special meeting yesterday was the first Pittsburgh City Council session ever live-streamed over the Internet.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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