Changing the frame: from social innovation to civic startups

Keynote Address from Making a Difference 2013 Hong Kong

These are edited notes from my speech at Making a Difference 2013 Hong Kong on civic startups. I had initially prepared a different talk, but upon arriving in Hong Kong, talking with locals and other guests, I realized that while the technology sector there is thriving, it was sorely lacking the civic or social focus that exists in the American ecosystem. Thus, I reoriented my speech to discuss the need for and needs of a civic tech ecosystem. Video is available below.


I want to tell you a story about a city in Massachusetts called Monson. It’s a small town. It’s about eight thousand people so you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s pretty average for a northeastern town in America. If you had heard of it it would have been because of this. In 2011 it was leveled by an F3 tornado. If you know anything about America hearing about a tornado in Massachusetts is like hearing about a hurricane in Germany. It never happens. They weren’t prepared for it. This is what happened to that city. It was demolished. Houses were broken. People lost their jobs. People lost their lives.

In a crisis like that there’s this one very special women I’ve met, she stepped up, she did what I bet the people in this audience would do. She stepped up and said, “How can I help? How can I solve this problem?” She started corralling all the volunteer that she could, and started getting them together to start solving the problem. People were shipping in resources. Volunteers were stepping up and people were saying, “Give me help.” She was running all of this effort, thousands of people, thousands of resources from her iPhone. It’s funny, if you talk to her about it she says the biggest problem she had was that she had too may resources and not the tools to manage them. In fact, some of the resources were wasted. Some of the help that could’ve been given wasn’t provided.

She did, also what I bet a lot of you would do, she built an app for that. She built a little app for the internet that says basically, “Tell me what your needs are, tell me what you have, and tell me what you’re willing to do.” It’s called recovers.org. She built this with her and two of her friends over the course of a couple of months. She thought that even though her city wasn’t prepared, any city should be, and that the problems that she was facing in her town would be common in other towns in a disaster zone. She was right.

This is what happened in Forney Texas six months after the app launched. Another F3 tornado leveling a town. Here’s what was different, Forney was able to use that piece of technology to respond to the crisis on the ground. They were able to stand up Forney Recovers and be able to take a list of everything people had, everything that people would be willing to do and match that up with needs. Thousands and thousands of needs were submitted. She’s proud and that company is proud to say that every single one was able to be met because of this piece of technology.

That’s the power of technology in a crisis. That’s the power of technology in a community, that when it’s needed and when people need tools to respond to a situation they have it. This is now their company. It’s Recovers. The story doesn’t end in Forney or Monson. They decided that this shouldn’t just be a one-off situation. This idea, that there should be community powered response, that the citizen who want to help, that the citizens who want to give back should have the tools, in any city that they’re in, should be commonplace. They’ve done the hard work of going city to city in the United States and contracting with the city government to deploy their piece of technology, because you know what? The best time to be ready for an emergency is before it happens.

The reason I wanted to tell you this story is because we’re talking about changing the game. I bet to a lot of you the notion of building software and selling it to government sounds insane. What I wanted to do was come before you and tell you that if you want to change the game, if you want to have an impact in your community, this is one way to do, and it’s really important, and it’s really important right now.

Before we get there, some background. My name’s Abhi Nemani. I grew up in southern Illinois. It’s a small rural town not unlike Forney or Monson. I was just joking backstage that the tallest building in my town was two stories tall, not exactly like Hong Kong. I was always into politics. I was always into government. I was always the nerd in the room. I was always the guy who would stand up the website when they needed it. Eventually technology became a passion of mine. I made my way to San Francisco eventually and started working for Google. About three years ago I quit my job at Google to go work and help build a new non-profit known as Code for America. My parents were happy about that.

What’s Code for America? The notion for Code for America is actually a game changing one. It’s the notion that yo can change the way that government works through technology. You can fundamentally reimagine the way cities work by leveraging technology to make them more open, efficient and connected. When we started it everyone told us we were crazy. I thought we were too. People thought, “Government’s too broken. It’s too disconnected. It’s too removed.” Over the last few years we’ve seen that things are changing and that right now is a tremendous opportunity to make something happen.

Specifically what do we do at Code for America? We started off with this basic notion that, let’s bring together the great developers and designers from technology and bring them into cities and see what happens. We launched this program. It’s a fellowship. We call it a Peace Corps for geeks. It’s a public service opportunity for technologists to give back and make cities work better. We focus on cities. Being here in Hong Kong, I would do it here because I love cities. Cities are the place where we get the services that we need, make the connections to the communities that we love. We wanted to work with cities.

The core notion of the project is that we’ll get a team of developers and designers, three or four of them, send them to a city like Chicago or Philadelphia and see what can you do if you have free range to just experiment. If you can look at the challenges within city hall and say, “Hey, I’ve got a better way to do that.” That’s what they’ve been able to do for the last couple of years. I don’t really want to talk much about the fellowship, but I wanted to give you an example or two of what we’re doing so you can get a sense of how it’s feasible that we’re able to work with government.

This is a story from the city of Boston. It snows a lot there. The first year of our fellowship they had the worst snowfall in their history. They have these fire hydrants throughout the city. When it snows that much they get covered. One thing we ask our fellows to do is to go around the city and ask people, “What are big problems that you have?” They were talking to the fire department and asked them, “Hey, what’s a big challenge in your job.” They said, “This.” They said, “This is the problem, that when it snows, instead of being firemen and putting out fires and saving lives, we have to shovel off these hydrants.” One of our fellows is like, “You know what? We can do something about that. Why do you have to be the one to shovel it out? There’s a person living in the house right in front of that hydrant. There’s an apartment building. There’s tons of people who can help out.”

They built an application. It’s called Adopt-a-Hydrant. It’s really simple. This is a very lightweight application. The reason I bring it up is because I think it’s game-changing. This application says that instead of a government being responsible to do everything in the community, we as citizens can do something as well. We can step up. You can adopt a hydrant. It’s great. You put your address in there. You’ll get a list of the hydrants near you. You pick one. They’ll jump up and down. You can give it a name. It becomes your hydrant and it’s your responsibility to take care of it. I bring this up because I think this is a game-changing notion. It’s the notion that citizenship comes with responsibilities and that technology is giving us a way to be more active as citizens, a way for us to do more.

It’s not all about the apps. When we’re in the cities the fellows do some other fun stuff too. This is what looks like a utility box in Santa Cruz California. If I’d asked you guys what this was I doubt that many of you would know what this is. I don’t know what it is when I first saw it. Turns out it’s a bike shelter. Santa Cruz is near the water. It rains a lot and there’s waves and they wanted to put bikes inside these shelters so they don’t get ruined. No one knew that. That looks like a utility box. Our fellows were like, “That’s bad. That’s not using the resource.” They went there and drew a bike on the side of all the shelters. They painted that on. The reason I want to bring that up is it shows that cities can have more character. They can be more playful. They can be more accessible to citizens if they’re willing to try something new.

That’s our fellowship. What say at the fellowship is that it shows what is possible, because you guys, and whoever was thinking this, that it’s going to be hard to work with government. You’re right. It really is sometimes. What we’re learning is that if you can get inside city hall, if you can start working with the government, and this shows something interesting. Show them Adopt a Hydrant. Show them that bike rack. They’re able to see something new. They able and willing to try something new. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We have a bunch of applications that we’ve built. That was fro the first year. We built twenty-one applications in three cities, the second year, 2012, fifty-two applications, lots of projects.

Our strategy, this is what I want to impress on all of you, is that that’s just the beginning. That’s opening the door to innovation. That’s the start. There’s a lot more that needs to be done. There’s this quote I love. It’s,

“If you want to build a ship don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Instead of building every single thing a government wants get the government to believe in your vision, believe in this other way of doing things, and then they’re going to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

This is our strategy. We’re hoping that governments will see this offer of building with the fellowship and then crave it, demand it. If that’s the case you then have to have a set of startups, new vendors, new technology companies that are going to address those needs. That’s why last year I was proud to build a startup accelerator for Code for America. For those of you who don’t know, an accelerator basically brings together the most exciting, promising startups, gets them resources, training and a network to help those companies to become more successful. We were positioned well in this market because we had a network of cities that we were working with. We wanted to help tee up those cities for new, interesting startups to make it just a little bit easier. Our first year we had a four week application window. Two hundred and thirty-five companies applied for the seven slots. It’s very competitive. I’m proud of the seven companies we picked.

I’m going to tell you about one of them. This is Aunt Bertha. Not my Aunt Bertha, but an Aunt Bertha. This is the Aunt of one of the founders of one of our startups. He’s from Texas. I’ve heard that this is an increasing problem here, is that as populations age they require more social services and providing those services is a challenge. A similar challenge is making visible those services to citizens. Aunt Bertha wants a social service. She wants to get her Medicare, or go get healthcare. How does she know where to go? Right now she has this awful, complicated system of twenty different forms, three different websites that are terrible and she’s not able to find the services that are her right, that are made for her.

This entrepreneur, Erine Gray made an application called Aunt Bertha. It’s this simple, you put in your zip code and it tells you, “These are the programs available to you.” He made a smart play. He said that, “Instead of going directly to the government first, I’m going go to all those forums, all those websites, get all that data myself and make this application so I don’t have to worry about contracting the government to get started.” He’s got something like fifteen thousand users in the first year in Texas. This is where it gets really interesting. He’s decided to make it profitable by then selling back that information to the government. Talk about changing the game.

These are the examples of the kinds of things you can do if you’re willing to get creative and willing to take on hard, messy challenges. These are some of the other companies that we’ve worked with. Captricty is a nice one. They take all of these paper forms that you have to fill out in government and digitizes all of them. I talk to you about Recovers. Measured Voice is a social media tool for government. Revelstone, I’ll mention this one last, Revelstone takes performance management for government, the way they operate, how you say, use this resource or that resource and puts data on top of it so cities can make smarter decisions. The cool thing is because they go city to city to city they cities start to compete for their ratings. The cities want to become better than the other cities, and they’re able to make that challenge, they’re able to gamify that.

That’s our accelerator. I wanted to tell you about these companies not just to showcase them, not just to show you wants possible, but as a call to action as well because we’re really just at the beginning. We call these civic startups. This is an emerging market. There’s not very many players in it. Even though we had all those applications, very few of them were viable companies. We need people like you, people like your friends, people who are passionate about making their communities better to step up. To build an industry, it’s not just about having companies. You’ve got to have a community of people willing to support those companies and help them get better. You’ve got to have customers, clients who are willing to work with that technology and buy it. Finally, you’ve got to have capital. You’ve got to have investment firms that are willing to put money into these companies to help them grow.

On that last point, that’s only going to happen when there’s a lot of companies getting into this market and there’s a lot of brave, brave young people like yourselves willing to say, “You know what? It may be hard to work with the city. It may be hard to work with the government, but I care and I’m going to do something about it.” This is what I ask of you. The reason why is this quote from my friend Tim O’Reilly. He says,

“Technology makes the easy things easy and makes the hard things possible.”

I would add one more line to that. I would say that when something’s possible and it’s important we have the responsibility to take it on.

Let me show you one last example of why. This is a lady named Miss Rita. She’s in the city of New Orleans. She’s retired and now spends all of her day tackling this problem called urban blight. Blight, if you don’t know, it’s vacant houses. I don’t know how much you know about New Orleans. As you may know, they were hit by this Hurricane Katrina a couple of years ago. A lot of people left the city and a lot of houses were damaged which means that now the city that had a population of one point two million is down to six hundred thousand. There’s all these houses that are vacant. That may seem like an opportunity for real estate, but in fact it’s a problem for crime and public safety because thee vacant houses become hotbeds for crime.

The mayor, when he came into office, he said, “You know what? I’m going to solve this problem. I’m going to take down a hundred thousand vacant houses in my four terms.” This is the mayor. Guess what, no one had the data to tell him which houses were vacant or not. Miss Rita didn’t have it. Do you know what she did? She spent two hours a day going house by house to figure out what the status of those houses were. Her and her friends would do that. She wasn’t the only one. Think about that. Citizens spending hours a day to go map out their city because their government didn’t have the data.

The mayor of a major US city didn’t have that data either. He told his CIO, his chief information officer, “When can I have an iPad app that just shows me the status of any house that I’m standing in front of?” Seems simple enough. The CIO said, “It’s going to take me three years and cost about thirty million dollars to do that.” Our fellows went in there and they built it in six weeks. This is BlightStatus. They went into city hall like a SWAT team, went and found all the data sets and build this simple application because they were able to go in there and innovate. They were able to go in there and find all this data.

It’s a pretty simple application. The point is it puts the mayor and Miss Rita and other citizens on the same level. I love this quote from the newspaper that covered the launch of this application. It says,

“The app proposes a new kind of more productive communication between the two groups that moves past angry and frustrated citizens on one end and a paralyzed city on the other.”

Think about that. It changes the way the community works. It changes the social dynamics in the city. That CIO, after he got the application, the way he described it, he said, “It changed the conversation.” Beforehand citizens were really upset and thinking the city wasn’t doing anything. The government was frustrated because it wasn’t able to respond to their challenges. What happens in that dynamic? Society corrodes. It’s not productive and healthy and collaborative. The technology that came into play, that application BlightStatus was able to change the conversation and change the game.

In closing I just wanted to say that when you build civic tools you can build civic trust. That’s what they did with BlightStatus. That’s what they’re doing with Recovers, with Aunt Bertha. That’s what I hope that all of you considered doing. You can sit around and complain about how the city works, you can complain about how your government works, or you can commit to being a change-maker. You can commit to making a difference, and you can get involved. Thank you.