Pour away the pools of colored dots, strip out its taxonomies of connections, and forget its menagerie of 600-plus nonprofit-, private- and public-sector profiles. In the end, Microsoft’s Civic Graph might best be described as an old-world atlas for civic innovation.
Unlike modern maps, this interactive visual of civic innovators is incomplete. It’s like those nautical maps of old, maps early explorers sketched as they charted trade routes and marked ship headings. Through Microsoft NY, the company’s civic tech team in New York, Microsoft engineered Civic Graph to be a crowdsourced guide for civic tech’s developing network of connections. With every data upload, the graph expands its visualizations of funding, data usage, collaboration and even influence via Twitter followers and employment estimates.
“We wanted to allow people, organizations and governments to easily know essentially the who's who and what's what of civic tech,” said John Paul Farmer, Microsoft NY’s director of technology and civic innovation.
Farmer led the creation of Civic Graph drawing from his experience as a former senior adviser for innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he also co-founded the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, an initiative to insert private-sector tech talent into government.
With this aptitude for cross-sector collaboration, Farmer said he was struck at the sheer dearth of information about civic tech leadership and influencers. Apart from well known groups like Code for America, civic tech advocates often must rely on a seemingly amorphous network of individuals and organizations for support. The Microsoft team wanted to clarify these opportunities and resources for civic hackers, officials and other trailblazers.
“[The civic tech movement] had gotten to the point where not everyone could know each other, so it was a victim of its own success,” Farmer said. “You essentially had to know somebody who knew somebody.”
To plug the gap, Microsoft NY conjured a rough prototype and demoed the platform at CodeAcross NYC, an open data festival held last February. Feedback drove an official launch in June, and since then, Farmer and his team have sought to advertise it wherever possible. The initial reception has been positive, with contributions coming both from typical open data devotees and an unexpected number of international contributors. User data hails across continents, from Europe to Asia to a surprising flurry of participation in Africa.
As it input data, Farmer said the team added only one civic tech organization in all of Africa, the Kenyan nonprofit known as Ushahidi, based in Nairobi. Now, Farmer said crowdsourcing has generated more than 40 different entities for the continent. Microsoft’s sole purpose for the platform is to bolster the civic tech movement and it sits apart from its commercial market research initiatives.
“In the grand scheme of things we just want people to use the data in all kinds of interesting ways that we might not have thought of yet. It’s why we built the API,” Farmer said, also noting the code is open source.
Eyeing Civic Graph from an outside perspective Jon Sotsky, the Knight Foundation’s director of strategy and assessment, commended the Web app for its ability to automate intelligence on civic tech’s expanding ecosystem. In 2013 Sotsky, along with Knight’s VP of Strategy and Assessment, Mayur Patel, co-authored one of the first studies on civic tech investment. The report tracked civic tech connections via investments from a collection of individuals, venture capitalist firms, nonprofits and governments for 11 categories of civic tech. Sotsky said he saw Civic Graph as a way to take the study’s emphasis on connections, and turn it into real-time data.
“It continues and actually builds upon one of the primary intentions of the Knight study, which was to depict both existing practitioners and funders in the field,” Sotsky said.
Assuming Civic Graph continues to see a steady flow of contributions, Sotsky said the tool could be a vehicle to give philanthropies like Knight a better sense of viable partnerships for co-investing, as well as spotlight new ground for funding efforts.
“I think the other big use case would be getting a better sense of who the other investors are in this space — especially with foundations,” Sotsky said. “It seems like it’s always the same five to seven funders when it comes to civic tech.”
Civic Graph's top 20 most-connected entities
The list below is based upon initial crowdsourced data from Civic Graph's user survey data. The results are likely to fluctuate as more data is added.
1. John Paul Farmer
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.