A Word on Civic Tech

Civic tech is one of the most interesting and fulfilling markets to work in. It seems to be that perfect combination of social good and entrepreneurship that still has potential to make money. Until you start actually working in it.

The biggest problems with civic tech, from my experience working with a few people on a civic tech startup in France, stem from identifying a customer segment that will actually pay for a product. Or use it often for that matter if you’re trying to get ad-based revenue.

There are three possible customer segments, let’s analyze each accordingly. The first if government. Some of the more successful civic tech startups are really just contracting with the government. Look at OpenPlans, Appallacious, TransitMix (the ones we looked at primarily for our startup). The problem with this is working with government, especially local and state. Usually they don’t have money to give out, and subject you to strict legal standards. For example — our first idea was a mix of OpenPlans and CrowdPac, it gave people the ability to place a pin anywhere on a map of their city, and propose a project (ranging from building a new community center to fixing a pothole). People could then like, comment and upvote ideas, and the ones with the most chatter would be funded by the government.

Thought that was cool? Yeah I did too until we called a few higher ups in the Oakland city government who said each project would have to go through a strict legal vetting, something the government would never do. Also government doesn’t like being told do anything (according to him), it makes them look bad if they don’t fund projects.

Second market: campaigns. There are some REALLY cool startups here. Polis and Hustle are two of my favorites. The former optimizes routes for canvassers, and the latter allows you to send mass personalized text messages (invented by and for the Bernie campaign). This is tough because most of your money comes during an election cycle, meaning it’s tough to be successful here. Unless your exit strategy is being bought by NGP-VAN or i360 (the Democrats and Republicans respective technology providers), after election year the business can’t sustain itself.

Final market: consumers/voters. This is tough because noone’s willing to pay for anything in politics. Politics used to be at the center of social life, now it’s a private matter that’s ‘weird’ to debate in public. This turn happened in the 60s, and we’ve never reversed course, although some startups in this field like Brigade believe we will. Other platform based technologies fail to get users consistently on them, mainly because they don’t organize around a single issue so it’s harder for people to feel attached to a greater cause. There’s also a problem with understanding what people really want in politics.. are they interested in just screaming and shouting, or are they willing to do something if it were made easy. There’s an app on my phone called ‘VoteSpotter,’ which allows you to view every bill that your representative has voted on. Effective app, I love it, it’s not marketed well and the UI is terrible, but if it were marketed effectively I wonder — would people really use it that often? Because there’s a lack of instant gratification when you ‘vote’ or actually contribute to politics, it’s tough to get people using the technology often, unless you sacrifice the social good aspect and focus on making everything seem controversial.

Civic tech is fundamentally tough because it’s impossible to really identify the market. We have a lot of opinion on what people want and need in the political system. However when we bring those problems to the business world, everything starts breaking down. Would you pay money for it? How often are you really using the technology? Can you be constantly engaged for revenue and business model purposes?

Honestly I’m taking a break from this so that I can focus on learning Node.js, Angular, and brush up on Ruby. BUT this field is where my interest really lies, I’ll probably try to work in it in the coming years.