Most governments haven't mastered the art of innovation, but they're getting better at finding partners to help them move in the right direction.
Cities, states and federal agencies have taken to a crop of civic tech startups that promise new ways of solving often long-standing challenges. These adroit and ambitious tinkerers have plugged their skills into government service gaps. A decade ago the idea was unthinkable. Today it’s indispensable, especially for localities pressed between hard budgets and big demands. In 2014 startups proved they could chop costs, improve products, expedite services and free up resources for governments.
Captricity took on the Food and Drug Administration’s backlog of paperwork with its algorithmic document processing. Civic Insight erased two-to-three-hour wait times for construction permits in Palo Alto, Calif. And for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Appallicious delivered a dashboard that fights disasters with mapped resilience and recovery coordination.
This year, startups are again poised to influence government in health, transportation, finance, law enforcement and a multitude of other sectors. This list certainly doesn't clover them all, but here are five civic startups with big potential.
InstantAPI marries apps and websites to data. It’s a quick-pull lever to create customized application programming interfaces, the bridges that support interactivity between software. In and out of government, typical API development is pricey and can gobble up months of engineering hours. This startup aims to be as affordable as $5 per month for access. In the first quarter of 2015, founders Mimi Ling, Sunil Kumar and the company’s CEO Scott Ling plan to take the platform into beta. That includes a completely rebuilt dashboard user interface, a bundle of enterprise features and training videos to onboard early adopters. InstantAPI might provide a steppingstone to governments that have an appetite for open data but no tools to offer it to outside websites, apps and civic-minded hackers.
Carpriza could be pitched like an “As Seen on TV” promo: Do you hate your city’s website? Is it clunky, glitchy with hard-to-reach features? Then try Capriza! An innovative, drag-and-drop tool to turn your outdated website into a user-friendly mobile app! Notwithstanding the hyperbole, what's amazing is the fact the platform does what it claims. With “Zero coding. Zero APIs” and “Zero upgrades” Capriza allows users to create what it calls Zapps, essentially websites that are converted into an app format for smartphones and tablets. Capriza literally places users in front of their current website and a mobile device-sized screen, then has users drag elements and features into an app. In 2014 the startup raised $27 million for further improvements. It’s projected to be a big draw for organizations equipping their workforce with mobile tech -- and it could be great for governments, which have struggled to attract and retain mobile development talent.
Data-entry is an unglamorous task at both ends. It’s monotonous to those who type it in and to those who process it. New York-based startup SeamlessDocs intends to reinvent the process with a cloud service that quickly transforms PDFs and printed forms into HTML Web docs complete with e-signatures. Adding to the convenience, one of the greatest features of the service is its ability to automate and archive forms in real time — a feature that enables easy document search. Co-founders Jonathon Ende and Chachi Camejo estimate that eventually one in three government transactions will be digital. They envision a world — as their site proclaims — where citizens no longer have to “download, decipher, complete and fax in a government form again.” The startup has launched services in Los Angeles and Atlanta, and it has received $2.7 million in seed funding from multiple investors including the Govtech Fund, the first venture capital fund exclusively dedicated to government startups.
OpenCounter emerged as a Santa Cruz, Calif., based question-and-answer service, a cloud platform that guided entrepreneurs through the regulatory jungle of the business registration process. Since its inception, co-founders Joel Mahoney and Peter Koht have seen their startup flourish as the company has embedded itself in multiple municipalities nationwide. In 2015 the startup is raising the stakes again through a partnership with the city of Boston. OpenCounter's services will be used with 60 varieties of Boston municipal permits, which generate an average of $60 million for the city annually. The two-year project will create a suite of services to serve commercial permitting, residential permitting, special events permitting, and additional assortments of stand-alone license applications.
Domo prides itself as an outsider within the analytics community. It doesn’t have all the nuances of an IBM or the enterprise complexities of an Oracle. Instead, Domo entices with a simple concept: one dashboard for all data. The Utah-based company says human decision-making requires a focus on fundamentals. It’s why the company, under founder and CEO Josh James, has crafted a service that incorporates data from hundreds of platforms — SalesForce, Amazon Web Services, Marketo, Excel, Quickbooks, Twitter and others — into a basic user interface that examines only the most pertinent data for decision-making. Design wise, its site showcases a layout that appears reminiscent of the flat user-friendly formats of companies like Apple and Google. To date the company has raised more than $250 million from investors banking on rising demand for big data.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.