New SFO app for blind travelers born out of controversial city program

A new smartphone app has put San Francisco International Airport at the cutting edge of navigation options for the legally blind and visually impaired.

However, the project was born out of the Mayor's Office Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, calling into question whether seemingly fruitful partnerships with tech startups hurt The City's ability to engineer its own services — and even come with an added cost to use the final product., one of six startup companies selected for the 16-week collaboration between city departments and private-sector enterprises, received much praise from airport officials and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a San Francisco nonprofit that assisted the development process.

At a demonstration in Terminal 2 on July 31, entrepreneurs showed how the app uses Bluetooth low-energy beacons and Wi-Fi to guide people with vision disabilities through the airport using vocal commands.

SFO has “suddenly become the most densely annotated and richest travel experience for the blind anywhere on Earth,” touted Bryan Bashin, CEO of LightHouse.

Added airport spokesman Doug Yakel: “Mayor Ed Lee has been very visionary with his goal of establishing San Francisco as a city of innovation. And as the airport that represents the city of San Francisco, we certainly want to reflect those attributes.”

But Supervisor John Avalos, who expressed concerns of privatization with the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program since it launched, remained skeptical on whether The City would ultimately benefit.

“The government is not a place for private-sector companies to make profit on when they find a niche,” he said. “You can find a niche in a million different places. The government is there to provide a service and if the private sector can provide a service for the government to manage, great.”

No contract has been established with the airport, and the product is still in beta testing, company CEO Hannes Stiebitzhofer said. But he explained that his Austria-based startup makes money by charging a monthly fee to airports, shopping malls and other indoor locations where the company installs the cloud-based data used for navigation. He would not disclose how much would be charged to SFO, adding that his company does not sell the technology for other entities to manage themselves.

“That's our business model,” Stiebitzhofer said.

It's not clear whether the six startups will profit from the products they worked on with The City.

Jay Nath, who heads the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation, said the program encourages innovation in government.

But Avalos questioned that as well.

“I think at some level, these applications can erode what is provided by government,” Avalos said. “If people are assuming the private sector is going to handle government services, then it really makes what the government is about weaker.”

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