Showcase 2019: Growing the commercial civic tech sector with Ben Sanders
We’d like to introduce you to some of the awesome humans who will be joining us at the Code for Canada Showcase in Ottawa on July 24 and Edmonton on July 29. They’re at the forefront of civic tech and digital government in Canada (and around the world) and they’ll be sharing their learnings, experiences and wisdom with our audience. If you’d like to be there when they do, it’s not too late to get tickets!
Ben Sanders is the co-founder and CEO of Proof, a Yukon-based civic tech startup that empowers governments to go paperless by streamlining approvals and improving data-driven decisions.
The Code for Canada Showcase is a celebration of civic tech in Canada. What does civic tech mean to you?
When I hear civic tech, I think of technology that’s deployed to enhance the relationship between people and their government. The goal is to improve decision-making and delivery of service.
I’ve been lucky to have been part of building two previous tech companies. I’ve seen the influence of technology in shaping two major industries: restaurants and the financial space. I feel it’s inevitable that government, and all things related to civic society, are going to see that same kind of positive influence — that technology can really help solve some of the most interesting and complex puzzles government is struggling with today.
Civic tech for us is really about empowering governments with better technology at all levels — municipal, provincial, territorial, federal, and Indigenous governments.
How does the theme of civic tech or the values of the civic tech movement relate to your work?
Proof is exclusively focused on helping to upgrade government, which isn’t all that common for a tech company, especially in Canada. We’re specifically trying to help a lot of different governments with the same platform, which allows everyone to pool and defray the costs, so we can offer it at a much more affordable rate. In doing so, we’re hoping to change the way government accesses technology. Rather than running big and expensive RFP processes, we want to be the Netflix of government, offering technology that’s constantly evolving and available to everyone in government at a much lower cost.
What we’re focused on is streamlining approvals. Every time a decision is made in government, dozens of people have to sign off. The process for that is largely stuck on paper, whether it’s approving a travel claim or something as big a budget. Our hope is by streamlining that process and unlocking data to help make better decisions, we can help unlock greater civic tech progress for all sorts of governments.
What’s unique about civic tech and digital government in Canada? Are there unique opportunities? Unique challenges?
The one thing that stands out for us in Canada, but that is especially pronounced in the Yukon, is that there is a very clear fourth level of government here: self-governing Indigenous governments. Half of Canada’s governments that are self-governing of that nature are in the Yukon. These Indigenous governments, some of which were our first partners, have the same jurisdictional powers that a province would have.
“It’s incumbent on government to be making moves and updating legislation to spark a greater overlap between the public sector and that thriving tech industry, so that the civic tech sector specifically can become even stronger.”
Canada also has an increasingly thriving tech scene. When I started my first business, I had to do it in Silicon Valley. Now, I’m seeing a much bigger trend of tech really thriving in Canada for a whole bunch of reasons. I think a challenge and opportunity is unlocking more innovation explicitly within government. It’s incumbent on government to be making moves and updating legislation to spark a greater overlap between the public sector and that thriving tech industry, so that the civic tech sector specifically can become even stronger. There are some exciting things afoot, but I think we still need to and can do a lot more.
The Showcase brings together public servants, entrepreneurs, community organizers and residents under the banner of civic tech. From your perspective, why is it important to get people from across sectors in the same room?
I think diversity of thinking is really important, and cross-pollination of different perspectives and skill sets is critical. Whenever you’re solving the world’s most complex puzzles and building world-class solutions, it’s imperative to bring to the table a really diverse set of minds. I think that’s the only way in which really big projects like these can be successful.
We ran a civic tech hackathon in November in the Yukon, and it was explicitly aimed at a similar notion of bringing together a variety of different skill sets, including developers, designers, residents, and subject-matter experts from government. If we haven’t had the right mix of all of them, we couldn’t have run that event and created a bunch of cool projects. The diversity there was key.
What are you most excited about for the Showcase this year?
I think it’s really cool that one of them is in Edmonton. We really wanted to be involved in the Edmonton Showcase, in part because there’s some exciting stuff happening there. And I think it’s important for Code for Canada, and for civic tech in the country at large, to be shaped by and growing in places that aren’t the obvious, traditional spots like Ottawa.
Ben will be delivering a lightning talk at the 2019 Code for Canada Showcase in Edmonton on July 29. Get your tickets today!