Blog Post

Something special happened on the way to adopting drains

Residents and business owners in San Francisco can adopt and care for drains thanks to a collaboration among the City and volunteers. Pictured above is the Adopt a Drain website.
Residents and business owners in San Francisco can adopt and care for drains thanks to a collaboration among the City and volunteers. Pictured above is the Adopt a Drain website.

It’s been quite wet in the Bay Area recently. I won’t complain (too much); although I wish the storms were a little gentler (stay safe!), we need it.

In addition to normal rainy day activities, I’ve recently started checking in on a handful of adopted drains (technically, mine are catch basins). You see, sometimes these drains get clogged by debris and a little sweep can help rain flow where it should.

Hundreds of other volunteers have also taken up this rainy day activity through the City’s Adopt a Drain program. The online platform is the result of collaboration among City agencies and civic technology volunteers at Code for San Francisco. It has made visible the roughly 25,000 storm drains and catch basins that the City maintains for an eager community of drain adopters.

There’s been a good deal of local coverage on this lately, so I wanted to share some additional reflections as one of the City partners on this project.

Technology in support of collaboration

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.

Lucky for us, we had a starting place; an early Code For America project in Boston called Adopt a Hydrant. The code for the project, being open source, was available to copy and modify. In fact, other communities had already set up their own versions like Adopt a Siren in Honolulu and Adopt a Drain in Oakland.

Having leads to follow, the San Francisco edition took off as a project of Code For San Francisco. Working with the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), Public Works and DataSF, they helped craft code into something that met the needs of San Francisco. It was and continues to be a collaborative effort that involves:

  1. Open data. Public Works and DataSF worked together to produce a drains dataset (big thanks to John Seagrave and Greg Braswell for their help on this!). That data was pulled by Code for San Francisco volunteers to load the drain locations. The data was recently automated so it will update as drains come and go.
  2. Collaboration. Collaboration was seeded at the Code For America summit among Jean Walsh, communications manager at SFPUC; Jesse Biroscak, then co-lead of Code for San Francisco; and myself. Jean took the lead of enlisting support to include partners at Public Works and within the SFPUC. Jesse Szwedko shortly became the lead volunteer engineer, implementing changes to the application. Many other contributors have pitched in as well.
  3. Open source code. All the coding and project management happens on GitHub, a tool designed for open source collaboration. Oz Haven, a Code for San Francisco volunteer, even taught Jean how to use GitHub and all the work has been tracked there since.

Bigger than an app

This really isn’t a story about technology, however. It’s one about how collaboration and creation lead to a “spiraling upward.” Technology helped us orient to a goal, but the drive comes from elsewhere: a desire to participate in acts of co-creation to improve each corner of this world.

Adopting a drain is a niche application, admittedly, but let’s consider this in a broader context. Here’s what it’s inspired so far:

  1. Asking better questions. The Adopt a Drain application captures limited data, but this has inspired staff to think about how might the City understand impact of education and volunteer efforts.
  2. Engaging more data. Communications staff at SFPUC have started using additional data to target outreach. They’re also tracking campaigns, media coverage through web analytics to get a more complete picture of impact.
  3. Closing feedback loops. Drain adopters have reported drains that don’t exist. But when staff update data in the source, it doesn’t update the application. Work is happening now to close that loop!
  4. Building and discovering a network of volunteers. Ultimately, this work is inspired by engaging people in the collective care of the city. SFPUC is not relying solely on an “if you build it” mentality. Technology alone does not solve problems. So, they’ve been hosting volunteer events; providing tools to help adopters clear drains safely. In the process, they’ve also discovered that some were already adopting drains.

Toward impact and connection

Image of volunteer event held at the Southeast Treatment Plant

The SFPUC held a fall volunteer event at the Southeast Treatment Plant. Volunteers received tools and vests and some training to keep them safe while tending to drains. Image source: SFPUC Communications

Of the close to 25,000 drains, over 1,000 have been adopted so far by hundreds of volunteers. Adopt a Drain is one tool in a toolkit the City uses to limit and reduce localized flooding. I can’t make bold claims on Adopt A Drain’s specific impact on flooding yet, but it has done something surprising and special: inspire and connect.

Just read this note sent to the SFPUC:

My family of four have typically cleaned the two drains in our neighborhood (which I signed up for tonight) at our corner for the past 25 years. I am glad you began this program as it involves people in our community and helps me teach my sons a sense of civic pride and duty. My father is a retired civil engineer and one of his tasks was to design road drains. My siblings and I grew up understanding the importance of cleaning drains. I have taught my sons this lesson.

I hope this program takes off.

Also, at a recent volunteer event held at the Southeast Treatment Plant, one city employee took it all in and remarked “I didn’t realize people cared.”

Connection is vital. When we are connected, we are inspired, creative and hopeful. The unexpected outcome of this work has been connection: volunteers connected to the City, families connected through civic pride, City staff connected to each other, and so on.

It’s my hope that projects of all scopes and scales seek to connect–to chip away at isolation–so that we care for and build the city we need together. If we can inspire folks with Adopt A Drain, imagine what else we can do!

I’ll leave you with a little video inspiration from the SFPUC about some of the volunteers. And if you’re so inspired, adopt and name a drain today!