Editor's note: Some details of this article have been changed for clarity.
With a new name, a new product and a big bucket of potential local government clients lined up, OpportunitySpace is about to complete a stint in the Y Combinator.
Or rather, Tolemi. That’s going to be OpportunitySpace’s new name as it takes lessons from the infamous Silicon Valley startup accelerator that served as a launching-off point for companies like Airbnb, Zenefits and Dropbox. It’s a play on Ptolemy, the Greek polymath whose connection of prior geographic knowledge advanced cartography as a field.
Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator (YC), said the company’s team impressed him. But beyond that, the accelerator is becoming more interested in the government technology space as a whole.
“I think the most important change is there’s an openness from the customer, which in this case is government, [being more] willing to sign on with startups … than five years ago,” he said.
The software, delivered from the cloud, promises something more like situational awareness. By connecting lots of data sets together, the company is betting it can give cities, counties and other local government institutions a much easier way to find problem properties, understand what the best course of action to take on those properties is, and follow trends.
And that’s just the beginning. In the future, Tolemi Chief Executive Officer Andrew Kieve thinks BuildingBlocks could become useful for much more. The company will be watching what its customers are doing for clues on that.
“We want to make sure we hit a home run about blight and disinvestment," he said, "but we think there’s a world of possibility out there."
So far, Tolemi has 14 cities using the product, ranging in size from Pittsburg, Kan., to Philadelphia. But it has a pipeline of customers nearly three times that size that might start using it in the coming months. Outside of BuildingBlocks, the company has a history of working with counties as well.
BuildingBlocks works by extracting data from silos, cleaning it up and putting it all on a map. It comes from a lot of different places — law enforcement, federal agencies, tax databases — and refreshes to keep the information current.
For Louisville, Ky., that’s a stark difference from the old status quo. Louisville’s Vacant and Public Property Administration has been using the tool for more than a year to help identify vacant, run-down, disinvested real estate and deal with it — maybe by foreclosure, maybe by demolition, said administration Director Laura Grabowski. The goal is to get the property back into the hands of somebody who will make it useful again.
Louisville has about 5,800 vacant structures, of which it owns about 600, and a goal of foreclosing on 100 every year. Before the new software, Grabowski described the process of identifying which projects truly needed intervention as “scattershot.”
“It would’ve been mounds of emails, multitudes of phone calls, trying to figure out who was the owner of what data, or what pieces of data. And normally that would have been several offices. It would’ve been the sheriff’s department for the taxes, code enforcement for the code enforcement liens … it was just inefficient and it would take a ton of time,” she said. “Now, most of it is at our fingertips.”
Having that data at the ready tackles a problem the city used to run into a lot — uncertainty. The city’s old way of doing things was to bring in consultants to identify problem areas of town and then make all those calls and send all those emails to try to track down as much information about individual properties as possible. Meanwhile there were a lot of questions about whether any given parcel was really in need of intervention.
“Now we can look at a tool and fairly instantly say, ‘Yes we should’ or ‘No we shouldn’t,’” Grabowski said.
It also means the city can see more clearly where the problem districts are, without bringing in consultants to do the work for them. That makes it easier to concentrate efforts near enough to each other that they might work well together to improve a neighborhood on the whole.
“Once you focus all your resources in one area, it inevitably helps all the project spend their money wiser,” said Joshua Watkins, a real estate coordinator at the agency, adding that over time, the tool will also allow for better strategic planning — to the point where it might lead to wide-scale change.
“What the city can do," he said, "is compile data that makes the case for [Kentucky] policy."