San Francisco is encouraging civic involvement through its Adopt a Drain SF program, where residents become responsible for one of the roughly 25,000 storm drains and catch basins that the city maintains.

Once they adopt a drain, residents are asked to keep an eye on the drain and make sure it doesn’t become blocked with debris. As of January 2017, 1,000 drains have been adopted.

(Image: Code SF) A screen shot of the Adopt a Drain SF app.

“I believe technology is best applied in support of a need. The need served by Adopt A Drain in San Francisco is to engage the community in the care and awareness of the City’s drains to help limit localized flooding,” said Jason Lally, open data program manager for the City and County of San Francisco, in a blog post.

The program got its start in late 2015 when several city agencies partnered with volunteers from Code for San Francisco to develop the Adopt a Drain SF Web application. According to Adopt a Drain SF, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the agency that manages the sewer system, and San Francisco Public Works, the agency that maintains the database of sewer infrastructure assets, worked with the city’s Open Data Program in the mayor’s office to get the storm drain location data uploaded to San Francisco’s Open Data Portal.

Code for San Francisco volunteers used GitHub to develop the app; this allowed coders from around the world to contribute to the project. The Web app is open source and uses server-side Web application framework Ruby on Rails. Approximately 25 people contributed to coding and developing the app.

The program is based on a similar app in Boston called Adopt a Hydrant. Volunteers in San Francisco were able to modify the code from Boston’s program to fit their needs. The Adopt a Drain SF app displays a map of city-managed drains. Users can search for drains by either neighborhood or address. It shows both adopted drains and those available for adoption. Users are also able to name the drain they adopt: Some names include Flowing Frankie, Drain or Shine, and Water Under the Bridge.

SFPUC staff  members lead a training session where volunteers learned how to safely clean a drain and received free supplies. (Photo: SFPUC Communications)

Once volunteers sign up to adopt a drain, they begin receiving email notifications when a large storm is approaching, so they can gather their equipment. Volunteers are encouraged to use a broom or a rake to clear the drain, and the Web app and emails include safety precautions such as staying on the sidewalk, wearing reflective clothing, and being careful to avoid sharp objects. If volunteers find medical waste, needles, construction debris, or toxic materials, they are encouraged to call 311 and report the problem. The city says it’s looking into adding text message notifications in the near future.

While those involved admit that this is a niche application, Lally argues that the project has had a far greater impact on the city of San Francisco.

Lally explains that the app has encouraged staff to ask better questions.

“The Adopt a Drain application captures limited data, but this has inspired staff to think about how might the city understand the impact of education and volunteer efforts,” he said.

Additionally, using data for Adopt a Drain SF has encouraged communications staff at SFPUC to use additional data to target their outreach. Staff is also using Web analytics to better understand the impact of paid campaigns and media coverage.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs