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Gavin Newsom's Big Think

Chris Roberts | February 19, 2013 | Story

Representative democracy is not enough like Angry Birds, says Gavin Newsom in Citizenville, his plea for a more digital union. It’s too old, too slow, and not at all fun. The only way to re-achieve relevance, he argues, is to fling open the doors of government and equip it with the latest in high-tech tools. California’s Lieutenant Governor traveled the country and talked to a variety of impressive people to spin out his theories. But when it comes to his assertions about what he tried to accomplish during his seven years as Mayor of San Francisco—well, a bit of local context is called for.

1. The Claim: Newsom was thwarted in his attempt to create free citywide Wi-Fi.
The Fact-Check: True, but his excuse—bad timing—seems pretty lame. The Chronicle had run an article quoting email correspondence between him and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page that unleashed a torrent of criticism. Newsom declines to explain in the book why people were mad, saying only, “With all of us anxious about being criticized, we cut back on our communication just at a point when we were discussing the implementation of free Wi-Fi throughout San Francisco.” Whoops. it turns out that the emails revealed a close friendship among the three men at the same time that Google was the most prominent bidder for the free Wi-Fi contract.

2. The Claim: He made government data completely transparent.
The Fact-Check: He did, through the open database SF Stat. But he canceled the bimonthly public meetings to review timely data because he didn’t like the press reaction. “Every other Saturday there would be a critical piece in one of our two major daily newspapers. If 95 percent of the data showed improvements in the city, the 5 percent that showed something negative was the focus of the article.”

3. The Claim: He launched the first open API (application programming interface) in government history.
The Fact-Check: He did! Or at least one of the first. It’s called Open 311, and citizens can use it to examine public data in real time, track repairs and services, and suggest some of their own. The project also included a twitter account that allows citizens to contact government directly.

4. The Claim: A better working relationship with the private sector could have negated the Terry Childs affair.
The Fact-Check: Impossible to say, but it’s true that the biggest tech crisis of Newsom’s administration occurred when a rogue city network engineer, Terry Childs, hoarded the passwords to all of the city’s data—”email, legal documents, and payroll”— paralyzing the city’s IT. “Can you imagine anything similar happening at a company like Oracle, Microsoft, Twitter, or Yelp?” Newsom asks. But guess who saved the day? Sure enough, after many others failed to get Childs to cough up the codes, our hero Newsom rode in on his white horse and persuaded him to relent.

5. The claim: The homeless population declined under his Project Homeless Connect (which put all homelessness data into the cloud) and Care Not Cash programs.
The fact-check: Not true. Although Newsom claims that Care Not Cash led to a 28 percent decline in the homeless population in its first year, that drop was an aberration, according to a 2011 city audit: “The city’s homeless population has remained relatively steady since 2000.”

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