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What’s In Store for the Future of Measuring Civic Tech?

The Knight Foundation's Jon Sotsky sheds light on the next steps for civic tech research.

by / April 28, 2014
A diagram from the Knight Foundation report, The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field, that shows relationships between different kinds of civic tech companies. Knight Foundation

Though the civic technology industry may be small, its movements are still watched by many. The Knight Foundation is among these. As an organization invested in the development of civic-solution-providing tech startups, Knight chronicled the budding industry in December with an investment analysis — possibly the first ever attempted — that identified 11 types of civic tech companies. The analysis captured data from 209 organizations and outlined more than $430 million in civic tech investment from January 2011 to May 2013.

In February, Knight built upon the report with additional data and feedback following the release. The update brought the report’s totals to 241 organizations that received more than $695 million worth of investment from 2011 to 2013. Since this update, the foundation has planned a second iteration of the report that’s slated for release at the end of 2014 or early 2015. More data will be included, and additional metrics are expected to quantify the emerging industry's investment and impact potential.

To shed light on the next steps, Knight’s Director of Strategy and Assessment Jon Sotsky — a co-author of the report along with Mayur Patel, Knight’s former vice president of strategy and assessment — spoke to Government Technology to summarize what’s coming for research and planning. Sotsky said feedback from the previous report has resulted in high interest and a mass of Web traffic. There are more than 20,000 views for the report's SlideShare post and even more for the report’s interactive data site — one that’s become the most trafficked page on Knight’s site for the last four months, with visitors in the tens of thousands.

In our interview with Sotsky, he detailed the report's feedback, plans for the next interation and lessons learned in trying to measure a developing industry.

Government Technology: After publishing an update of Knight's report, what has the feedback been like and where has it come from?

Jon Sotsky: It’s been overwhelmingly positive quite honestly. A lot of it was really advanced by [Government Technology], and a lot of the media pick up we received including publications like The Washington Post, Fast Company and Atlantic Cities that were covering it. So it generated quite a bit of buzz. I think people were excited to see it because they hadn’t seen anyone try to chart this space before. It was refreshing and new.

When it comes to some of the feedback, I think that many people were just excited to have their hands on the data. The biggest push back we received was in how the [civic tech] sphere was defined. For example, do you include the peer-to-peer sharing market. That was what folks had to say definitionally in what we were looking at here. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming amount of folks that wanted to be included in it [including civic tech investors, startups and organizations] were where the biggest wave of input came from.

GT: Thinking about next year's report, has the feedback gravitated around specific suggestions (new data to include, new impact measurement, etc.)?

Sotsky: Yes, beyond more data from year to year we’re starting to look at trends. I think people are interested in the topic and looking at it more comprehensively in terms of trend data. A lot of people are very interested in the impact side of the work. They want to know not just how much money is going in, but how many results and how much impact is going out. So for these new open government tools, [civic tech funded projects and services] folks want to know if they are actually creating stronger civic engagement, how many people are using these tools and are they improving local government. I think the most overwhelming piece of feedback was around the impact measurements on this report.

Another one would be the investor information. Folks were interested in the philanthropic and private funders in the space. But they would also love to know more about where they’re co-investing and who is really providing funding for this type of work.

GT:  I saw in a recent Knight blog post that the idea of measuring successful civic tech business models was suggested. Do you think this idea could be considered for the next set of metrics?

Sotsky: It’s a great suggestion. It’s something that we’d love to do. Even if at the very least to start to say — when looking at different tools and platforms — "What are the different revenue models that are being used?" [Those models] could include program fees from governments that are essentially purchasing tools and using consulting services offered by some of these firms to foster the civic engagement process. That could be through traffic on these sites for advertising and sponsorship opportunities. There’s a whole rack of different revenue models that we're starting to see. Being able to catalog that more authoritatively would be an excellent thing that we are considering for future iterations of the report.

GT: You've previously said that in the months ahead Knight will share insights from its experiences supporting civic tech tools along with assessment resources for practitioners. What do you mean by "civic tech tools" and "assessment resources?"

Sotsky: A lot of the grounding in the analysis was to complement an internal review that we’d been doing of our own work funding these types of tools. What we’ve done over the year is take a look back at what Knight has supported to start to aggregate some lessons learned about what made some projects successful and other projects not. What we’re going to do [to provide assessment resources] is start to share some of the those lessons that we’ve been learning through that process. This will mean sharing insights, as well as resources in terms of data collection tools we’ve used for data sets or that we think would be relevant to start measuring that impact.

GT: In our previous interview you mentioned a hope that the last report generated discussion and critical thinking around civic tech. What's the dialog been like following the first release?

Sotsky: The biggest thing, I’d say, is a clear cognition of civic tech as a growing field. One of the things that I would love to do in this next report is go back and look at the usage of the term “civic tech” and do some semantic analysis online. I would put a firm wager on the fact that it’s really proliferated due to the development of this report. So I think developing greater coherence and to start to have more cognition of civic tech and having [categorized civic tech] clusters versus an atomized field of individual units with no connective tissue is one of the biggest things that’s come out of it.

We’ve seen other great things too, like people creating a common Twitter group with all of the organizations that were in the analysis. So now people are able to closely monitor conversations, join conversations and collaborate with others. And I think we’ve seen a lot of interest on the funder’s side of things for understanding what the role of private versus philanthropic dollars should be. I think there’s an honest debate to be had about whether there is a strong role for private dollars to be playing into some of these open government civic investments and how we can actually deploy private capital so that philanthropic capital can be used to take on things where there isn’t a proven business model.

GT: After completing last year's study, what lessons have you learned about trying to measure such a developing industry?

Sotsky: I’ve just learned two lessons in how you approach it. [First] make it open; just put all of the data out there, show exactly what you did and allow people to contribute to that data. So rather than trying to say, "This is what the space is and this is the conversation," it’s better to acknowledge the fact that this is just a way of starting a productive conversation.

The second lesson I have is to make it visual. If this was buried in a PDF purely and there wasn’t the interactive element, I think people’s appetites for discussing it would have been greatly reduced. So just to allow people to have greater understanding through their interactive experience with the data in the field. I think it’s just such an important way for a field in its infancy for people to start to look at some of the moving parts and make their own judgments about how they fit in the space, which they can use to collaborate with other colleagues and use for other areas of exploration in their work.

GT: What's the timeline like going forward? Do you have any set dates to release the next report?

Sotsky: The short answer is no. We don’t have a firm timeline right now of what comes next. I think the February piece was really important because it captured all the feedback that we'd received. We had dozens of suggestions for additional data and organizations, plus we were able to bring the analysis through the end of 2013. We’re still sorting what the best way is to update this year's report. For example, do we wait until the end of the year and put the best data in there, do we start to put out specialized kinds of data on interests that we want to explore further, etc. We haven’t made any firm timeline for how the project is going to unfold.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

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

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