Disruption as a Public Service

Talking Civic Startups at BigKansasCity

These are notes from my keynote address at BigKansasCity in 2013 on civic startups. Video and deck from the talk are embedded below.


It’s exciting to be here. I’m actually from the Midwest, so this is like a homecoming for me. This is fun, never given a talk in an airplane hangar before, so a little bit different. I want to tell you a little bit about what we do. This is a person named Miss Rita. I want you to meet her, because she’s great. She lives in New Orleans. Do you know what she does for two hours every day? She tracks down blighted housing in the city. She and a lot of other people in her community care about vacant housing, because if you’re in New Orleans, this is a big issue. After Hurricane Katrina and actually even before that, this has been a systemic problem inside the community.

The community really cares about this, because crime happens in vacant housing. These are real issues for local communities. Miss Rita and her friends spend two hours every day walking around the city to map out where the vacant housing is in the city. The crazy thing about the story though is the mayor has that same question. That’s the mayor of New Orleans. He wants to know where vacant housing is in his city, because he wants to deal with it. He actually made a commitment that during his term, he was going to deal with 100,000 vacant houses in New Orleans.

He turned to his CIO, a guy named Allen Square, great guy, a very smart guy. He asked Allen, he said, “When can I have an app where I can go to any house in the city and see the status of it?” The CIO said, “I want that too, but it’s going to take me three years, and it’s going to cost me 30 million dollars.” The organization I work for, Code for America, we send fellows in the cities, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about it. They were able to build an application in six weeks, just six: BlightStatus. You put in a location of a house, and it gives you back exactly what the status of it is. What the city knows about it, is it vacant or is it not, is it blighted or is it not, is the city doing something about it. You can do nice things like see a map view or whatever.

The point though isn’t that the application is cool or interesting, the point is this. This is what FastCompany said. They said,

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

Allen Square spoke at our conference last year that we had, and he came on stage and he said, “The application BlightStatus changed the conversation.” That’s what I wanted to talk to you guys about today. Which is how can technology change the conversation between citizens and their cities. How can you fundamentally change the way the citizen, Miss Rita, and the mayor interact through technology. That’s what you’re able to do now because of the way technology works. Let me back up now and tell you a little bit about specifically what we do.

Code for America, we’re a startup. This is that we had in our office. The first sign for our offices was hand-drawn with some water color pens, by yours truly. We were scrappy. We began in 2009 with this basic notion which is how can you bring citizens and technology to bear on reinventing the way cities work. We started this thing. It’s a peace corp for geeks. We actually have some fellows here in Kansas City this year. The idea is that people will give a year of service. Technologists, designers, developers, entrepreneurs will spend a year working with cities to help them innovate. They build different technology, engage the citizens, work with the community, see what you can do fundamentally differently. The first year we had three cities, last year was eight, this year nine, and Kansas City’s one of them.

We’re doing some really fun stuff, which I’ll tell you about it in minute. The core notion is kind of technology is at this turning point where it’s becoming more physical, becoming more real. It’s changing the way businesses work. I’m sure each of you as entrepreneurs know this. You can use technology to change the way your company works. How can you change the way government works using technology? That’s what we’re trying to do. What I wanted to do is tell you a little bit of the history of what we’ve learned, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, share some perspectives on what’s possible, and what we’re going to do at Kansas City if that’s okay. We started in 2011, our first year. We kind of knew what we were doing but not really. We’re still learning what’s possible.

We hired folks like this:

This is a guy named Max Ogden who is one of our fellows working in the city of Boston. Max is a great open source developer. He’s terrific, really smart. Problem with Max is Max doesn’t know how to tie a tie. We set up in the city of Boston to go work in the mayor’s office. They all wear suits, and our fellows don’t wear a suit. One thing we’ve learned is we have to understand the context within which we’re working, and figure out how to be effective in that situation. We sent Max there. We sent five other fellows there to work with the city. They were actually going to work on a tool to help open up data for the city’s school system. It turns out that was really hard, because there’s a lot of privacy challenges and issues around getting access to student data.

They started working on that. They spent a lot of time working on it, and honestly, they couldn’t get anywhere, because it was just too hard from a legal perspective. Instead, during the middle of the year, the mayor actually got into a lot of trouble with the press in the city. Boston Globe ran an editorial saying, “The process by which parents have to choose their schools for their kids was way too complicated.” If you see here, this is the PDF, or actually a brochure they send to parents every year. It’s 38 pages. No one can parse it. I can’t even read it from here. Parents got really frustrated, because the rules around which schools their kids can go to or complicated but important. It’s your kids’ schools.

The parents got really frustrated about this, and they asked us then to say, “Hey, what can you do to change this system?” so we built this. It’s DiscoverBPS. It’s like a Yelp for schools … not complicated, nothing crazy, but this is what parents needed. They needed an easy streamlined way to see how their school districts work. The reason I tell that story is for two reasons. One is this. This is why our fellows do what they do. They believe that interfacing together can be simple, beautiful, and easy to use. That’s what that is. It’s a simple Yelp-like tool, but it’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s easy to use. It’s the way you want to interact with your city.

“If you had to build this tool like DiscoverBPS, how much would it cost you, and how long would it take?” They said it would take two years and cost two million dollars.

The other reason I tell this story because this one blows my mind. We asked our government partners, “If you had to build this tool like DiscoverBPS, how much would it cost you, and how long would it take?” They said it would take two years and cost two million dollars. We were able to do it in two months with a team of about one and a half people. What we’re trying to do is show what’s possible for governments. Help them understand what’s out there, what’s feasible now given the landscape we’re in with technology, and how they can leverage it to be more open and engage with citizens. On this notion of simple, be beautiful, and easy to use, this is not. This is Honolulu.gov. This is the city website for Honolulu which was one of our partners last year which I nicely got to travel to which was great. This is the city website.

Again and again, citizens say, “This city website is broken. It’s not useful for me.” In fact, the city when we came in, said, “Can you guys fix that?” We’re like rebuilding an entire city website, so it’s a year-long program. Rebuilding a whole website in one year is going to be really tough. We didn’t know if we can do that. Then we thought about it, and we looked at actually … You should check out Gov.UK which is the website that the UK government’s building. They began with the simple premise which is that governments like this are organized by departments. You can see up there it says, “Agencies and Departments, Online Services, Businesses, Residents,” but why Online Services isn’t the whole home page I don’t know. It’s organized based on verticals, but citizens don’t think like that. We don’t think like that.

When you think about your government website, what are you thinking? “I have this question I need answered.” “I have this problem I need solved.” So what we decided is, what if we centered on the search? What if we centered on the citizen’s question? We built this thing called Honolulu Answers. It’s really simple. You just put in a question, “How do I get my driver’s license renewed?” It just gives you the answer. It’s like here are the two different questions, and then here’s the specific steps.

We spent a lot of time working on this simple design. It’s like here are the five steps that you need to know about. What this is doing, is it’s building new experiences for citizens and really changing the way citizens interact with their government. The coolest thing about the story is we sent teams of about three or five fellows to cities. You can imagine, people have a lot of questions about their cities, hundreds. Fellows can’t write all of that content. They just don’t have enough time. They have to build the technology, deploy, get users, etc. They asked themselves, “How can we get a lot of content? How can we get more information in this system?” They turned to the community.

They actually held this thing called a Write-a-thon. You guys have probably heard about a Hack-a-thon, but we decided that actually people could write for their city and not just code for it. They had these weekend events where basically hundreds of people would come out, and they would write content for their city, working collaboratively with the city staff. Think about that. A citizen-written website for their government. This is what’s possible when you’re able to use technology and then engage citizens to try things differently. That actually was a story from last year. Now we speak specifically about 2012 and the thing about last year is I ran around the office the whole time saying,

“Civic startups, civic startups, civic startups,” and this is what happened…

Have you guys ever been to a town hall meeting for a city or planning? Yeah, Steven from MindMixer back there’s been to these, but they’re typically held at 7:00 in city hall so ten people show up. The thing is, these are really important decisions being made about your city. Do I want a park here? Do I want a mall there? In the city of Philadelphia last year, they wanted us to take on this question. How can you reinvent, reimagine the way the city planning works? They built an app called Textizen. These are the posters they put up in the city.

The great thing about this is that you engage your consumers where they are — that’s not unique to the public sector, that’s Marketing 101 for any business. You don’t want to make your customers go somewhere new; you go to them. But cities typically don’t do that. They don’t engage people where they are.

We decided, “Let’s change that.” Throughout the city of Philadelphia they put these posters. “Would you like to see our rapid transit line?” They put them on buses, they put them inside bus stops, because that’s where people are, and that’s where people are engaging with their city. That’s where you should ask them the questions. It’s a simple SMS tool. It’s actually not complicated. I could write this code, and I’m not a programmer. It’s just basically give feedback on how your city’s working. The point is, is that it changes the dynamic. It’s saying, “I don’t want the same 50 people over and over and over again coming to my city meeting. I want new people. I want to ask them new questions, different questions, engage them in new ways.” That’s what this tool allows.

Here’s the funny thing about this story. We put up a simple web form when the thing went live in Philadelphia saying, “Hey, would you like Textizen in your city?” Within the first month, 200 different cities said they wanted it in their area. That’s the thing that people don’t understand about city government: that there’s actually an interest and a need to change things. Folks inside cities understand that. They just need the tools and resources to do something differently. That’s what something like Textizen do. These guys in private say have made a civic startup, have a paying client. You guys know how hard it is to make that first sale. They’re making this into a business. That’s what’s really great to see. It’s the evolution of this ecosystem to make it more sustainable. Here’s the thing about government. People say it’s broke, that it doesn’t have any money.

Do you know how much money government spends on technology every year? 140 billion dollars, federal, state, and local, 140 billion dollars.

To put that in perspective, the video games market, like HALO, Xbox, PlayStations… 10 billion dollars. The iPhone app market which everyone’s clamoring about an IOS app, two billion dollars. The government technology market is massive, and there’s a huge opportunity to disrupt that market with interesting technology, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.

Actually from the last year fellowship class, so we have eight projects a year, three of them have become startups. Textizen’s an example, Blightstatus, which I mentioned earlier, is actually now making a startup, and another one too, called LocalData from Detroit.

You’re seeing the emergence of a civic startup ecosystem which is really championed by folks like Steven back there who works for MindMixer. Last year we also added to our program offerings. When you work in non-profits, you talk about programs not products, and so we run programs. We made an accelerator. This is like YCombinator or TechStars if you’re familiar with it. We’re trying to bring civic startups from the outside, bring them into the network, help them, give them funding and support, and really get them more client’s attraction in the industry.

Last year, we opened up a call. We decided to do this in the middle of last year but decided that we wanted to get it done by the end. We had four weeks to recruit companies, so I lost my mind a little bit. We had 235 companies apply. Think about that. The first year of an accelerator program that’s focused on government technology had 235 applicants. These are the seven we picked. MindMixer, if you don’t know about these guys, you should. They’re the best in class software for civic engagement. They’ll work with cities to help them get best ideas from their citizens and help crowdsource the plans that the city should have. Measured Voice helps cities use social media, because they need to bubble-up the best ideas of what to share. Then strategically think about when to do it.

Inaugural 2012 CfA Accelerator Civic Startups

I also personally really like Aunt Bertha. This is a guy — his name is Erin Gray — and Erin’s aunt was on social services, but she didn’t know which services she was eligible for. He wanted to build a tool to make it easier for people to find out those services. The coolest thing about Aunt Bertha is they’re actually building like an Open Table now for social services. I’m from San Francisco. When you’re there, you basically see people waiting around the corner to try and get food stamps, to try to get access to a homeless shelter which is heartbreaking to see. The problem is when that happens, you don’t get a chance to actually go get job training or interview for a job, because you’re busy waiting in line to get access to this homeless shelter.

He’s trying to make it easier for those shelters themselves to allocate and identify resources, so that way you don’t have to wait in line. You actually will know if there’s a resource here or where else to go. This is like important, life-changing work. That’s what the great thing about these civic startups are. They’re not just building an Airbnb for Dropbox. They’re building real companies that are helping people’s lives work better.


That was 2012. Now we’re moving into 2013. Now it’s getting interesting, because we’ve gone from this general notion of engagement, of open data, of openness to come into some more messy stuff like the Department of Corrections in the cities of Louisville and New York City.

They’ve asked us to tackle the question of pre-trial incarceration rates. I don’t know if you guys understand what I’m talking about there, but basically if you get arrested, you got to go to a bench trial to see if you’re going to thrown in jail or let free before your even actual trial. This is just to decide if you’re going to be held in prison for while. This is the kind of technology that they’re working with right now. There’s been studies that show that apparently the most likely indicator of whether or not you get thrown in jail or let free, is whether or not the judge had lunch that morning or not. That’s how this stuff is determined. There’s this great organization called the Arnold Foundation that’s done a lot of research into this.

They’ve looked at it and found out that there’s some real algorithms you can use. What someone’s job history was like, whether or not they showed up at school every day. You can use that kind of data to decide whether or not someone should actually be thrown in jail or not. They want us to help work with the city of New Orleans and with the city of Louisville to actually build technology that gives them insight into that. Here’s the funny thing. It’s like we talk about algorithms and helping judges make better decisions. There’s simple stuff that they’re building. We had our fellows actually take a ride with the cops, and drive around the city to get a sense of how it worked. You learn this crazy stuff.

When you get a bench warrant which is like a reason that you have to show up, you get a little card that’s like this big that says your time and your date of your trial. If you lose that, there’s no record inside the city at all where you can find out what your time is for the trial. You don’t have any access to that information, and if you miss that trial, you get arrested, and you have to go to jail for X amount of days. It’s like so simple little things like that are the problems that you have to take on when you’re working with city government. The fellows are going to build a notification app, but basically an SMS tool that gets a text message whenever your trial’s going to be. It’s simple things, but small pieces that really matter.

I wanted to speak a minute about what we’re doing specifically with Kansas City and how folks here might be able to get involved. We’re creating for our accelerator. If you guys have a civic startup like MindMixer or like Neighborly, you should apply. Think about doing that, because that’s a really great opportunity to get access to a lot in government clients. We have a fellowship program which is open calls. You don’t have to be a coder. If you’re not, you can also be a community manager, project manager, or an entrepreneur coming to join that. It’s a year-long program. You get mentorship training, support, access to a lot of great people, and the chance to do something that really matters.

You going to spend your time helping cities work differently which is not a bad way to spend some time. Then we also have a brigade here locally. Jace is your local Kansas City Brigade Captain. We have this volunteer program basically where people who don’t want to give a whole year of service, but want to be able to hack in their free time or hack on the weekend. The Write-a-thons are run by the brigade in Honolulu. They basically come together, re-deploy existing civic technology, work with the city to build new things, write for the city website, and that’s a really great opportunity to get involved locally here in Kansas City.

Finally, think about how you can be more civically engaged. How can you use MindMixer to help your city work differently? There’s a WikiKC if you’ve heard about that which is a local community website that’s all about how to document and curate your local city. How can you use those platforms to really make your city a better place?

There’s this quote I read last year that’s really stuck with me. This is Auden writing about the Spanish Revolution. He was talking about how the city is theirs and if you want to make it better, you really have to make it your own. Then he had this line,

“We are left alone with our day…. And time is short.”

The first time I read that, I first thought, “Oh, wow. That’s really sad and pessimistic,” like we’re screwed, we’re on our own. Then I read it again, and I read the second line, “And time is short.” The point is that we have control of our day. This is our making. Our cities are our own.

My friend, Tim O’Reilly, uses a phrase,

“Government is what we do together.”

You can complain about government, or you can realize that we live in a democracy, and this is ours. This is ours to do, and these are our cities, and we are left alone with our day, and then time is short. What I would say is think about how you can code for America in the ways that you live your day-to-day lives with your companies, with your organizations, with your colleagues. Think about what you can do to make Kansas City even better or whatever city you’re from, because coding for America isn’t something you just do in San Francisco, it’s what you do everywhere, and it’s what you do with your cities. Thank-you.