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Revolutionizing Outdated but Promising Government Mapping Tools

AmigoCloud founder Ragi Burhum details how his next-gen mapping startup intends to improve the current state of mapping software.

Nearly everyone is acquainted with the irksome and awkward maps on mobile devices. They’re wedged into screens so scrolling turns tricky, squinting becomes a necessity, and redirects — links to apps or other sites — bounce users out of their Web destinations entirely.

The head-thumping vexations are what drove Ragi Burhum and Victor Chernetsky to conceptualize AmigoCloud in 2012. The duo markets AmigoCloud as a next-gen mapping company with a knack for mobile screens and friendly tools for Geographic Information System (GIS) management. Targeted at both the public and private sectors, AmigoCloud acts as an in-between technology to bottle the complexities of the geospatial world into a platform for editing and sharing.

As the company’s CEO, Burham, who cut his teeth as a former GIS expert at Esri, has steadily expanded AmigoCloud with support from the civic tech advocacy group Code for America and through venture capital investment from firms like the Govtech Fund, which specializes in promising government technology startups. This year Government Technology also included the company in its Govtech100 for its noteworthy innovations in the sector.

Burham outlined his company's strategies and next steps in an interview with Government Technology.

Government Technology: What led to the creation of AmigoCloud? And what are it’s most used features?

AmigoCloud CEO and co-founder Ragi Burhum: AmigoCloud was born out of the the frustration with the current state of mapping software. Contemporary computing in our everyday lives is typically done with a smartphone that is powered by some form of cloud services (Facebook, Gmail, etc.). Yet, in the area of mapping, we are usually stuck with technology that resembles desktop computing of the '90s. We asked ourselves why?

Our most used feature is offline capture of mapping data. Crews go out and collect locations, photos, street signs, storm drains, dens of endangered species, basically anything with a position in the real world. It doesn't matter if they have an Internet connection or not. Our technology automatically takes care of all the complexity behind the scenes.

GT: How has AmigoCloud assisted cities and governments in the past and how do you hope it influences jurisdictions in the next two-to-three years?

Burhum: Most of the cities, state agencies and transportation authorities that have adopted our mobile and cloud technology have saved an enormous amount of time in simplifying their workflows. It is not uncommon to see how something that used to take two weeks of work is cut down to less than one hour. You can easily calculate the ROI for that.

The next two to three years are very clear for us. The way government employees think of technology is changing. They expect their "work software" to work like their "everyday software." They are right. Why put up with clunky apps? If my favorite phone app doesn't work well, my reaction is to delete it and find something else in the app store. Government software will be procured a lot easier, too. We want to be there when you want to try something better.

GT: As one of the fortunate startups to receive funding from the Govtech Fund, how has this backing assisted in the company’s development?

Burhum: The Govtech Fund has been extremely helpful for us. There is a new ecosystem of govtech companies (not to be confused with civic tech companies) that is emerging. The Govtech Fund has helped us connect with other startups and people in government interested in the opportunities and challenges of this traditionally untapped $400 billion market. Most venture capitalists shy away from this space because of outdated notions and challenges typically associated with working with government. Like all my govtech peers, we see something different — great opportunities.

GT: In the world of geospatial tech, can you describe a few rising trends and how AmigoCloud plans to keep pace with these?

Burhum: I think the most interesting trend is that the market is starting to feel comfortable with alternatives instead of going with the de facto vendor. This was fueled by the open source explosion. The way we keep pace with these is by being a good citizen and contributing to the open source ecosystem. As a side effect, we have seen that to also be a great source of inbound leads. All of AmigoCloud customers have been inbound — something we are very proud of.

GT: In your blog posts you’ve written a good deal about your support for open data. What are some of the most impactful types of geospatial data governments can release? And how can they make them most accessible to civic technologists and startups?

Burhum: I have a love-hate relationship with open data initiatives! Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer that the concept of open data is a good thing. Nevertheless, I think that how the data gets released is very often overlooked, and more often than not, it is badly implemented. Beyond the ironic fact that most open data portals run closed software and are sometimes posted in proprietary formats, there is the issue of how often it gets updated. Having health code violations posted can be very useful, but if that data is six months old, then it loses its value. Stale data stinks.

The best way a government can make their data useful is by keeping it up to date — both source and metadata — and by making sure it is machine readable and not publishing it in proprietary formats that require special software or operating systems to consume it. If the data is useful and it can be scraped easily, somebody will use it.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.