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Cash Injection Fuels Next Phase for Code for America Alum MindMixer

CEO Nick Bowden says the novelty of his product is wearing off and it's time to expand.

Like many in the government IT world, community engagement platform MindMixer is maturing. The company announced Sept. 2 that it raised $17 million in its most recent round of investment funding. In addition to recently merging two of its offices to a central location in Kansas City, Mo., and plans to increase its number of employees by 150 percent, the funding will also allow the company to venture in new directions.

Primarily funded by Omaha-based Dundee Venture Capital, and the San Francisco-based Govtech Fund, along with several other anonymous partners, MindMixer’s latest round of investment funding will allow the company to take a more scientific approach to engagement, CEO Nick Bowden said.

“Our goal is to provide a meaningful and local civic experience,” Bowden said. “Two years ago, I would have said we want to provide a platform that allows citizens to communicate more effectively with their governments. I think our aim now is to provide great engagement software that provides really meaningful, yet local, citizen experience.”

Since being founded in 2010, the company has continued to grow and search for innovation in new places. MindMixer received financial and creative support through Code for America’s startup accelerator in 2012, and in September 2013, MindMixer teamed with Code for America to lead the Ideation Nation, a contest that encouraged participants to innovate in the civic engagement space.

This round of investment will allow MindMixer to enable cities to engage their citizens in a smarter, more targeted, more data-driven way, said Bowden. For example, he said, “if you put a poster in a bus stop in a predominantly low-income neighborhood, that has really big impacts on, one, what the question has to be and, two, what kind of response you’ll get from that question.” By using census data, location data and voter turnout data, cities can get a better idea of which areas of a city might be more predisposed to engagement and which topic areas each region might be more interested in. Neighborhoods with older people might be more interested in transportation and safety, while neighborhoods with lots of families might be more interested in education initiatives. Taking an engagement approach based on these data-informed realizations is a big departure from the traditional way of doing things, Bowden said.

The old way of doing things is to ask broad, open-ended questions to everyone in a municipality at a physical forum, like a town hall meeting – maybe a question like, “What do you want the future of this town to look like?” The answers of those who attended would be noted and leaders would try to make sense of those comments later, but who those people who spoke were and what they represented have traditionally been unknown factors. Five people speaking in one meeting can’t represent an entire population. MindMixer wants to use demographics and socio-economic information to fine-tune how cities engage their citizens, so they can get the most useful feedback possible and make the best decisions possible, said Bowden.

Having this investment funding will allow the company to explore what else is possible, he said. “I think we’ve developed a pretty general use of the platform and cities find that valuable, but I think at some point cities now expect more than just a tool,” he said. “You’ve got to translate that tool into something measurable and ‘measurable’ either has to be decision support or it has to be an overwhelming number of people that are engaged that haven’t historically been engaged.”

Getting more people engaged with their governments could be a function of making information available and creating positive experiences of civic interaction, Bowden said. Today, most citizens would be hard-pressed to name their elected representatives, but using predictive data could be an avenue to making that kind of information more readily available, which would in turn generate more civic engagement, he said.

Bowden shared an experience visiting a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office in Kansas that uses the QLess platform to let people get in line remotely so they don’t have to spend all day at the DMV. “It fundamentally changed my perception of the Kansas DMV, ” he said, noting that in places without such technology, the process is essentially a mindless 90-minute wait. “Unfortunately most of the general public draws an enormous number of perceptions about government from interactions like that because that’s primarily their interaction with government.” To be effective at citizen engagement, Bowden said, governments need to find those interaction points and target the furthest fringes of society, the people who wouldn’t engage otherwise.

Since the company’s creation in 2010, MindMixer has been used by nearly 1,000 organizations. The most informative use cases, Bowden said, have been those related to disaster recovery, which isn’t an area the company is necessarily looking to expand in. But disasters have a tendency to unify communities, leading to increased civic engagement, and consequently, disaster recovery projects like those in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Nashville, Tenn., yielded the richest data sets. “The level of engagement and the style of engagement, web, text, and offline, are really good examples of where we’ve gotten really big sets of data to, in a post-project world, look back and see what worked well and maybe what didn’t work so well,” he said. Seeing now what kind of data it can generate and how useful it is to organizations, MindMixer can expand beyond its original niche, Bowden said.

Wichita, Kan., has been using MindMixer for several years -- first the transit department to engage the public, and in 2013 the city launched Activate Wichita after the library system received a civic engagement grant. For gathering data, making decisions and engaging the public, MindMixer is a great tool, said Cynthia Berner, director of libraries.

“We really wanted it to be a community tool for engagement,” Berner said. “Our library staff has administered that, several departments have used it, and a film commission here in town has used it. We have done engagement on potential changes to ordinance work, both our police department and our fire department have done things around that. We have used it for several topics where we are working on strategic planning initiatives and we wanted feedback. We have used it for satisfaction surveys, we have used it for resource allocation purposes, getting guidance on budget priorities.”

MindMixer is an invaluable tool, Berner said. “If we are at the start of a topic, we use it to engage the community, get a starting point, and then we will build on that with in-person community meetings and other types of engagement,” she said. “Or it can start the other way, where something happens in the community and then we use it to really drill down on that feedback to validate what we’ve heard or to help get a real firm sense of direction.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.