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San José, California

San José invited citizens to submit their solutions to some of the city’s biggest challenges in a citywide competition. In the first year, the competition focused on graffiti removal and resulted in a drone prototype capable of removing graffiti in difficult-to-reach places.


More than 40 percent of the complaints to Caltrans are about graffiti, and it can cost as much as $60,000 to shut down a highway and remove graffiti on a sign or overpass. Since 2011, the City of San José has spent upward of $4 million on graffiti eradication. Despite these efforts, the city continues to receive an average of 2,400 graffiti removal requests from residents per month.


San José launched Unleash Your Geek, a series of competitions that invited citizens to submit innovative solutions to some of the city’s biggest challenges. The city partnered with several organizations on the initiative, including the California Department of Transportation, local nonprofits and universities, and the Silicon Valley U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which provided participants with technical assistance in obtaining patents for their solutions. San José also engaged partners to help the winning team develop and market its solution. In the first year, the competition focused on graffiti removal from areas that are difficult and expensive to reach, including overpasses, freeway signs, and tall buildings. The challenge resulted in 140 submissions from individuals, small businesses, corporations, and teams at local universities.


The winning graffiti removal submission was from a team, led by resident Chris Farmer, who built a prototype in their living room. They designed and equipped a drone to spray paint in hard-to-reach spots, where graffiti removal typically results in significant traffic disruptions. Early signs indicate the drone’s ability to remove graffiti will make a big impact. When a local business owner allowed Farmer to practice using the drone on the back wall of her store, he reported that “she almost fell over with joy.” The city is currently planning the second year of Unleash Your Geek, which will solicit tech innovations for flood detection.


“The City of San José has stepped up and said, ‘We will be the testing ground if you can bring the right idea.’ This has empowered us to launch our own company, innovate in a stagnant industry, and improve the community we live in.”

– Chris Farmer, member of winning team


All 10 Finalists

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