Breaking In: How Tech Entrepreneurs are Changing Government
/ November 4, 2014
For a long time tech entrepreneurs have battered against the ramparts, looking for a way to breach the walls of government with services they believed could further civic aims. They are finally getting through.
“The platforms that have been around for a few years are really starting to become the norm in local government,” said SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz, who broke into the public-sector market with his 311-esque tool, helping pave the way for entrepreneurs to work with (and help) the public sector. “The governments that are coming to partner are not necessarily the early adopters anymore. People are not just testing these things out. They are becoming standards.”
At the same time, some of today’s most innovative entrepreneurs in the civic sector say they still face challenges. Governments resist change; civil servants can feel threatened by the tools of transparency; and procurement remains a choke-point. Smaller businesses especially are stymied when it comes to navigating public-sector buying processes. It still isn’t easy getting in.
That being said, some are making headway, delivering a range of tools to improve government and ultimately better the lives of citizens. Here are nine entrepreneurs who are making it work.
- Donna Harris / Co-CEO of 1776
- Andrew Hoppin / CEO of NuCivic
- Alexander Kapur / CEO, OpportunitySpace
- Marci Harris / CEO, PopVox
- Jordan Raynor / Co-founder, Citizinvestor.com
- Greg Tracy/ Founder, HackingMadison
- Mark Nelson / Chief Operating Officer, Revelstone
- Kathryn Peters / Co-founder of Democracy Works
- Minh Tran / Independent mobile app developer and author of Fix311
Donna Harris / Co-CEO of 1776
As Donna Harris looks across the technology landscape, she sees not just new avenues for consumer gratification. She also sees an emerging world where government and entrepreneurs can come together to make life better for everyone.
“If you look at what is going on with the Internet and social media, cloud, big data, we live in a world where there are incredible possibilities through technology,” she said. “Yet entrepreneurship has been primarily focused on our lives as consumers — Facebook, Angry Birds.”
But health care, education and energy are still “broken,” said Harris. “We haven’t seen that level of innovation coming to these really important markets. … I would like to see entrepreneurs create enterprises that solve meaningful problems.”
1776 is meant to be one such solution. As an incubation platform working with startups worldwide, the organization focuses its support on government-regulated arenas like education and health. It provides funding, classes, mentors and customer connections.
New companies with aspirations to work in these areas face special challenges. In the consumer market, things are clear cut: Companies develop a product, market it to their audience and then people use it or not. But that’s not how it works in the public sector, where laws and regulations reign supreme. “There is a lot more complexity anytime you want to put a product into a market where the government plays a role,” Harris said.
On the upside, the same complex rules that keep a company out also can help it to get in. “Laws are changeable; regulations are changeable,” Harris said. “You can talk to legislators, you can get laws changed as a strategy to help drive growth. It’s not as complicated as you might think, especially when you are talking about state laws and local legislation.”
Andrew Hoppin / CEO of NuCivic
As a former CIO of the New York State Senate and now co-founder of NuCivic, Andrew Hoppin has seen how much information typically flows freely between government and the public: barely any.
His company’s flagship product, NuCivic Data, aims to remedy that. It offers government a simple platform for publishing maps, charts, graphs, data, blogs — anything that might help make operations more transparent.
And it’s all done on an open source platform. “As a government CIO, I always was concerned: This seems great now, but what if my needs change next year, or my vendors change and they want to change their pricing?” Hoppin said.
An open source infrastructure, “means you’re not locked into us. If you decide next year to take the service in-house or you think we’re not doing a great job for you, you get to keep your software,” he said. “We don’t get to turn it off and leave you hanging.” As an added benefit, open source tools are available to all, meaning there may be an entire community of users and developers working to improve the product.
It isn’t always easy to convince government leaders of transparency’s benefits. “Information has always been thought of as power,” Hoppin said. “It means getting different stakeholders in the institution, along with skeptical people in the media and civic institutions, to believe that it is worth doing things differently.”
Seeing often is believing. When the New York Senate voted in 2010 on marriage equality, “tens of thousands” of people tuned into a live stream, Hoppin said. “All of a sudden senators realized they could have all these new touch points with their constituents and that could be a great thing for them.”
Alexander Kapur / CEO, OpportunitySpace
We can live in better spaces, if only government would step up. Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple.
“Governments are always dealing with the most interesting problems,” said Alexander Kapur, CEO of OpportunitySpace. “On the issue of how to create better places to live, work and play, government has so far done this with a very narrow focus — by neighborhood or by block — or they do it on a mega master plan that will never be fulfilled. Now I see a chance to influence what the places around us are going to look like.”
That opportunity comes in the form of land inventories. Cities struggle with development in large part because they simply don’t know what they have. That’s where OpportunitySpace comes in, researching and cataloging sometimes vast unknown landholdings within a municipality.
“A lot of people think of government-held property as fire stations and city hall,” Kapur said. “But that is only a very narrow slice of the story.” Governments may hold tremendous tracts of open space or possess properties taken by eminent domain as far back as the 1880s. They may have purchased waterfront land or industrial sites for forgotten development schemes or acquired property through tax foreclosures or failure to comply with regulations.
It’s not easy to ferret out all this data. Kapur’s team scours asset management information systems, explores tax databases, pulls inventory information from development authorities, pores over Excel documents and wades through paper-jammed filing cabinets.
Even with data in hand, working with governments to turn this information into real-world outcomes can be a bear. Civic real estate processes are protracted, and people get frustrated when they don’t see immediate change. Kapur’s solution has been to find a link to those who care the most.
“There are many well intentioned people in government who are interested in this issue and they tend to be our champions when we go into a new city,” he said. “There is also a lot of civic energy we can harness, to enable partnerships between government and civic organizations that were previously adversarial.”
Land-use transformations don’t happen overnight, but Kapur said OpportunitySpace is helping to get the wheels turning a little bit faster.
Marci Harris / CEO, PopVox
It’s been government all down the line for Marci Harris. Early in her career she served as the tornado recovery coordinator of Jackson, Tenn., and in 2007, she was a legislative counsel to Rep. Pete Stark, then-chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health.
Along the way she learned a valuable truth: A vast disconnect exists between the voice of the people and the hearing apparatus of lawmakers. “I had the most visceral rubber-meets-the-road experience of how government impacts real people. But it was also the most visceral experience of how frustrating government processes can be when you try to get something done,” she said. PopVox exists to bridge that gap.
Lawmakers do want to hear from you, but they don’t want to hear from everyone, and certainly not all at once. Thanks to the Internet, requests and commentary flow constantly into legislative offices, but it’s not always valuable input. “It was very difficult for Congress to distinguish signal from noise, to understand whether the input was even related to something that Congress was working on,” Harris said. “I just kept thinking there ought to be a better way.”
Through PopVox, individuals and organizations can check on current bills and create profiles explaining their positions. Messages go to the appropriate congressional offices. The basic service is free, while a pro version provides analytics that can help an organization understand how many people are going to a Web page and actually sending a letter about an issue. “You want to know how effective your campaign is,” Harris said.
The government site Thomas.gov makes available all information on pending bills, meaning PopVox is able to draw the meat of its offering directly from the government, no strings attached, no chasm to cross.
As Harris sees it, this technology will do nothing less than change the world. “Never on this planet has there been a responsive, transparent, inclusive, interactive government, because it has never been possible,” she said. “Now that we have the ability, we have a greater responsibility than we have ever had to know what government is doing and how they are doing it.”
Jordan Raynor / Co-founder, Citizinvestor.com
So here’s the plan: Citizens will see a need in their community and despite being overburdened by taxes already, they’ll go online and fund the project themselves, rather than ask the city to pony up.
“I was confident this wasn’t going to work,” said Citizinvestor Co-founder Jordan Raynor. “I was thinking sure, we can build it, I just don’t think people are actually going to do this.”
Wrong, as it turns out. Since its 2012 rollout, the crowdfunding site has attracted 50 projects, 68 percent of which have reached 100 percent of their goal. The average project costs about $15,000, and the largest has clocked in at $77,000.
Raynor has long been civic minded. He ran a political campaign straight out of high school and interned with the George W. Bush administration in 2006. And in 2009, he founded the political fundraising firm Dir
ect Media Strategies, later bought out by Engage. “Government is the people working together for the public good, and that was always appealing to me — to try to better people’s lives,” he said.
“Working together” is an apt descriptor for Citizinvestor, where grumbling about taxes is often overridden by a willingness to all row in the same direction. “Citizens are more than willing to pay over and above what they pay in taxes if you tell them what the government is doing,” Raynor said. “They want a louder voice in the process by which government chooses which public projects to fund.”
Projects on the site today include new trash cans in Central Falls, R.I., and a new playground in Chicopee, Mass. Despite early success, Raynor still wrangles with the complexities of engaging government in a novel funding program.
“This is something government has not done traditionally,” he said. Once they’ve seen the wisdom, the greater challenge becomes setting the goal. “Municipalities put a lot of pressure on themselves to identify that perfect project. They want to gain some traction, they want to show some success to the citizens in order to generate ongoing interest. But it’s government: It takes time.”
Greg Tracy / Founder, HackingMadison
It’s a case of ingenuity born of need. As he headed to work each day, Greg Tracy always wanted to know where his bus was on its route and whether he had missed it. The information wasn’t readily available to the public, but Tracy found it buried deep in the Madison, Wis., mass transit site.
Thinking that others might want to see it too, he created a Web service tool to make the information publicly available. Then he published that tool and created HackingMadison, an open community where others can easily generate views into civic information. Now the site gets 2 million requests per week just for transit information. Other projects on the site let users “adopt” local fire hydrants and access police and fire details.
Those developing tools for tapping civic data typically do it in the evenings after work, Tracy said. But they are no less devoted to the work. “They can give back by using a skill set that they are really happy to use,” he said. “From the city’s perspective, they have a whole new volunteer community they can tap into, to build new services that they cannot otherwise access.”
There’s been a happy symbiosis between the site and the city. Tracy met some resistance at first, but as civic leaders realized the site’s utility, some began to use it to connect with the public in new ways. Take transit for instance: “Every time they make a scheduling change, they reach out to me to get it updated. Otherwise, when something goes down, people call the metro and complain.”
Ideally HackingMadison will become the focus of an ongoing, two-way conversation. “Over time all this data will migrate in and be owned by the city,” he said. “If I can transfer ownership of this back to the city, then everybody wins.”
Mark Nelson / Chief Operating Officer, Revelstone
“With good data, decisions are based on what you know, not what you think.”
That’s the driving philosophy behind Revelstone, whose tools help government organize and visualize performance according to solid, verifiable metrics.
“Governance risk and compliance is not sexy. It is not the coolest Web app,” said COO and Co-founder Mark Nelson. “But we all need it. We all need to look at that data. So we are helping local governments have data-driven discussions, instead of just saying, ‘That’s the way we did it 15 years ago.’”
The service, a product of the Code for America Accelerator, maintains a library of some 600 civic metrics. It can measure overtime for police, the number of fire emergencies, the number of building inspection permits, and even participation in soccer programs. “We’re not big data, we are actually simple data. Local governments aren’t ready yet for big, complex data,” Nelson said. “They don’t have analysts and rocket scientists to do all the analytics.”
Instead, Nelson focuses on the simple metrics that demonstrate performance. Suppose, for instance, a flu vaccine deployment is hitting the wrong populations. Data can be a crucial factor in organizing the program. “Nobody wants to be the one who says we are stopping the service. But when you put the data on the table, then it makes the case internally, and you can make the case to your citizens as well.”
Not every city official is thrilled with the new premise. “We are ultimately selling a culture change,” Nelson said — a change that some may resist by wanting to keep their department’s work internal. But that’s exactly where data has the greatest value: peeling away layers of obscurity and laying out the facts.
Kathryn Peters / Co-founder of Democracy Works
Not everyone can make it to the polls. Students in particular may be away from home at voting time, but there are many others who can’t access the ballot box, for whatever reason. Democracy Works and its flagship product TurboVote aim to make the process easier for all.
For Co-founder Kathryn Peters, it’s vital to see her compatriots punch the card. “The U.S. has some of the lowest participation rates of any established democracy,” she said.
Why don’t people weigh in? “Part of it is process. We manage elections at a county and town level, and it is not consistent,” she said. People don’t know where to register; they don’t know where to vote or how to vote absentee. “We looked at that and said, ‘That’s a part of it that we can help fix.’”
TurboVote is helping 215,000 users at present, and Peters said that number could double in the near future. That’s a big number for an effort fresh out of the gate. It helps that TurboVote aimed its early efforts at 58 colleges. (It now connects with 180 schools.) “[Students] tend to vote absentee and they are great early adopters,” Peters said.
The site boosts participation in several ways. Users can log in to register to vote or update their registration. They also can request absentee ballots by mail and get reminder notices as elections near.
Behind-the-scenes work has been challenging. Every voting district handles things differently, and there’s no unified system for accessing the kind of information TurboVote needs. Last year the company put people in various voting offices to observe the system, in order to better institutionalize the process.
As a result, this year TurboVote plans to launch BallotScout, a tool that lets election offices track outgoing and returning ballots. It also helps officials place widgets on their websites that let voters track their ballots, ideally saving them from answering unnecessary phone calls.
Looking ahead, Peters is working with municipalities to develop and test email and text tools related to the voting process. “But we’re still collecting a lot of ideas about what our next offering should be.”
Minh Tran / Independent mobile app developer and author of Fix311
It started simply enough: Minh Tran blew a tire in a pothole. But just try to get that divot fixed.
“I wondered how you reported something like this to the government,” he said. “It turns out, if you went on the website, you had to fill in lengthy forms. If you called in, you were placed on hold and listened to music. The whole process was very inefficient.”
Thus Fix311 was born. Using GPS and smartphone cameras, the mobile platform lets citizens report to the city everything from safety issues to public works maintenance requests to cable service complaints. There’s even a category for barking dogs. “I just wanted to improve government,” Tran said.
Because problems often cross jurisdictions, the app goes beyond local apparatus. Tran said the app knows, for example, if a request should be routed to a city or county.
So far the app interface has been adopted mostly by smaller cities like Jerome, Idaho; Piqua, Ohio; Yorba Linda, Calif.; and Lake Alfred, Fla. Cities pay $800 to $40,000 a year to use the service. “That’s pretty good considering the city doesn’t have to build the system themselves or hire an IT person to manage it,” Tran said.
Still, getting in the door has been a challenge. “They keep redirecting me to different people,” he said. “I am still trying to figure out how they all work. Sometimes I am in contact with someone in public works, sometimes I am talking to someone in communications.”
Tran’s hanging in there, in the belief that ultimately his work will make a difference to all concerned. “It will help the image of government,” he said. “It shows the government’s desire to engage with the public.”