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Crowdsourcing Offers Gov Funding Option for Civic Tech

Online crowdfunding platforms are a growing alternative route to support civic projects by citizens.

New research from Stanford University indicates crowdsourcing may be the next big funding tool for small-scale civic tech projects and initiatives.

Rodrigo Davies, a civic technologist and Stanford doctoral researcher who is studying civic crowdfunding, says online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo -- which allow users to donate money to projects from independent creators or organizations -- are a growing source of alternative funding for civic works.

Davies presented findings from his study of more than 1,200 projects from 2010 to March 2014 earlier this week (Sept. 24) at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco -- an event promoting civic tech in government.

Civic projects appear to be among the most successful at raising money via crowdfunding,
Davis said. Statistics from Kickstarter, the most pervasive crowdfunding platform, show that 81 percent of civic projects met their funding goals, with campaigns typically seeking $26,000 or less. Across all project types, just 44 percent met their funding goals. Total funding raised by all projects studied was $10.7 million, with average funding per project at about $6,300.

Davies expect use of crowdfunding to grow as more people and organizations become familiar with the technique. According to numbers from Kickstarter alone, 7 million users have pledged $1 billion to fund 70,000 projects since the platform's 2009 launch.

“The first thing we know about civic crowdsourcing is that it’s small scale, but there are big ambitions,” Davies said.

The most popular of projects were connected to highly visible and less controversial initiatives like city parks and green spaces, as well as event funding.

There are a number of ways that public agencies can use crowdfunding, Davies said. One option is to be a curator of citizen-organized projects by advertising and endorsing campaigns online like the New York City Council did with its own Kickstarter Page. Another is to launch a city-run campaign for a specific project. A third option is to leverage a crowdfunding platform for small-scale project procurement. The final, and most elaborate, approach is to build an in-house crowdsourcing platform, a method that IBM has experimented with, according to Davies.

One thing the research didn’t answer is how the expansion of crowdfunding in government -- or for government civic tech projects specifically -- will affect the behavior of public agencies and citizen perception of government.

Davies questioned whether there could be a negative effect for governments that defer project funding in response to citizen willingness to subsidize such efforts. As his research continues, Davies said he intends to develop and elaborate upon government strategies to harness crowdsourcing and its potential side effects.

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