The Next Big Start-Up Wave: Civic Technology

Right now, civic-minded digital innovation is done mostly by volunteer hackathons and app contests. Code for America has a plan to change that.

Image
Socrata

For the past two years, Code for America has been embedding developers in city halls across the country, an initiative designed to show municipal officials what’s possible with technology, even if this small army of visiting fellows can’t carry on the job forever.

What cities really need in the long run, of course, are not temporary technologists and their stopgap services. Cities need a full-fledged, permanent industry around this stuff. A company called Socrata, for instance, has gotten into the fledgling business of helping cities publish and manage their public data. But there aren’t many companies out there selling modern web services to cities, or tools built on city data to citizens, or platforms for the two to connect better to each other.

“When we go to investors and talk about this, part of the work we have to do is articulate what we mean by ‘civic,’ articulate that this is a space that is emerging,” says Abhi Nemani, Code for America’s director of strategy and communications. “People don’t think of this as a space. People know ‘health care,’ ‘green tech,’ even ‘social entrepreneurship.’ They don’t really know ‘civic’ yet.”

So how do you create an actual market – with customers, entrepreneurs, investors, profit – on ideas that are today largely the province of volunteer hackathons and app contests? This is Code for America’s next challenge. For months now, the San Francisco-based non-profit has been developing plans for a civic "accelerator."

The model comes out of nearby Silicon Valley, which is now littered with start-up accelerators and incubators. These outfits are designed to foster infant companies by giving them all the resources they wouldn’t have working out of a garage: seed money, collaborative office space, legal guidance, access to professional mentors (in exchange, accelerators often take equity in these new companies). The most well-known incubator, Y Combinator in Mountain View, California, has helped hatch Reddit, Dropbox, Airbnb, Scribd and a few hundred others.

This summer, Code for America will launch its own accelerator in San Francisco specifically for civic technology start-ups, in the hopes that this new industry can change the way you interact with local government in the same way that earlier tech start-ups have changed what’s possible on the Internet.

"Our goals in thinking about this aren’t in the one or two-year time frame,” Nemani says. “We’re going to probably see some cool companies come out of the first class. But this really is about a five to ten year goal getting investors excited, getting entrepreneurs excited, getting cities excited, getting this whole thing to work the way other markets work.”

The window to apply for the first class closed June 1, and the winning companies should be announced in early July, with the program set to start at the end of next month. Nemani expected 40 or 50 applicants. Code for America got 235. It has broadly defined what it means by “civic,” to include companies that bring web technologies directly to government, or that build services on top of government data for citizens, or that “change the way citizens ask, get, or need services from government.” Nemani points, for example, to TurboTax, a company that built a parallel structure for citizens to file their taxes – and that, in the process, changed the way the IRS itself does business.

Code for America currently has the funding, with the help of Google and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, to run at least the first two classes of the accelerator. Each class will offer three-to-seven start-ups a $25,000 grant, office space in San Francisco, connections to government and industry experts and a series of intensive one-week training sessions once a month during the four-month program.

Code for America plans to focus on for-profit ideas since the whole concept is to build a marketplace – one in which investors will want to put their money and entrepreneurs can expect to make some. The end goal is still to improve civic life in cities. But Code for America is looking for companies that can do that with sustainable revenue.

“If someone can hit that sweet spot,” Nemani says, “that would be our dream company.”

This industry would probably develop eventually without the boost of a high-profile accelerator. But the process would likely be much slower.

“If we’re accomplishing what we want to do, in five or 10 years, people won’t have to ask what it means to have a ‘civic space,’” Nemani says. “They’ll know, and they’ll be like ‘that’s cool.’ They’ll think it’s not only promising and attractive to go into, and entrepreneurs will want to do this, but they’ll see it improving their lives, and increasing the public good.”

Top image courtesy Socrata.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.