San Jose contest aims to tackle graffiti with tech

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San Jose, California, is turning to the nearby tech community to find a more efficient way to delete its graffiti — a problem that has cost the city millions of dollars over the last few years. 

The “Unleash Your Geek” challenge asks local inventors and entrepreneurs to develop a prototype device, invention or app that helps workers cleanly cover graffiti in hard-to-get-to locations — like along busy roads or on freeway overpasses. With the contest, San Jose hopes to avoid lane closures or use massive cranes that often come with the cleanups. 

The challenge, announced in May, highlights San Jose’s recent “wave of community involvement and civic innovation,” said Jessica Weare, the civic technology and community engagement manager for Microsoft, a partner in the contest.

“The great thing about San Jose is that it is full of really intelligent and innovative and diverse people,” she said. “This is really one more way to capitalize on the amount of creative talent we have in Silicon Valley.”

Possible entries could include wall-painting drones or data-crunching programs that predict where the new tags are likely to pop up, she said. 

First, contest officials will pick up to four prospects this fall, who will share a $20,000 grant to build a prototype of their device. The grand prize winners will receive $5,000 in addition to help filling their patent application and the opportunity to have San Jose city officials test their product.

While they’re developing their prototypes, the four prospects will have access to office space, lab facilities and as well as counseling on how to turn their ideas into a commercial enterprise from the nonprofit innovation hub Prospect Silicon Valley, CEO Doug Davenport said. 

“It’s definitely an unorthodox topic, but this is the kind of pragmatic problem that the city really has to face,” said Davenport, whose organization is serving as a partner in the contest. “Graffiti really creates a sort of ‘broken windows’ problem that detracts from not just the aesthetic of the area, but also changes peoples’ perspectives.”

Indeed, graffiti is a major problem in San Jose. Since 2014, the city has spent about $4 million to remove it — that includes a $60,000 project last January to clean up a 2-mile stretch of Highway 101.

Known as the Capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose aims to facilitating tech, Weare said. In April, Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed forward a plan to use data, broadband and Internet of Things advancements to become the most innovative city in America. 

“If the city of San Jose can find a creative solution to graffiti, I imagine everyone would be hopeful that they can solve and support other solutions to urban problems,” Davenport said.

Register for the challenge here until Sept. 30.

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