2011-12-15

Co.Exist

Code For America Is Grooming Entrepreneurs To Disrupt Government

You might have noticed that the government isn’t the most innovative place, especially when it comes to technology. A new civic accelerator should help get them some tech help, and get programmers working on their civic duty.

It’s not hard to see if you pay attention: Cash-strapped local governments are increasingly turning to hackers and entrepreneurs to make their cities run smoother. Code For America has led the movement with a fellowship program that teaches web designers, entrepreneurs, and developers how to help cities innovate, putting some of our country’s programming brain power into the public sector before it gets sucked into Silicon Valley. Now, flush with a $1.5 million grant from Google.org, the nonprofit plans to create a civic startup incubator.

The Code for America Accelerator, which launches next year, wants to turn today’s government procurement model on its head. Traditionally, government contracts are served by longstanding government vendors who aren’t exactly using cutting-edge technology. "We want to replace the model [in the civic space] with same model that has worked in the consumer web," says Abhi Nemani, Director of Strategy and Communications at Code For America.

There are already examples of Internet entrepreneurs disrupting government services for the better: TurboTax, which turned a rough tax interface into something beautiful and simple; Socrata's social data discovery service for government data; and SeeClickFix's citizen reporting service (See a pothole? Click and get it fixed). But according to Nemani, "The sector is not very competitive right now, and there’s not a whole lot of innovation."

For every success story, there’s a failure right alongside it. Nemani gives the example of California’s attempt to build an electronic court filing system. The system still isn’t finished, but it has already cost $2 billion. A lean, agile startup could have successfully completed the project for a cheaper price--and at the end, the startup could have added a layer of open and accessible data for the public.

Code for America’s civic accelerator will last five to six months and offer seed funding, mentorship, and office space to budding civic entrepreneurs. Unlike most other incubators, this one will point out opportunities for civic innovation. "Opportunities for working with government directly aren’t exactly known, so we need to do some work ourselves really drawing attention to them," explains Nemani. Code for America plans to work with local governments directly to find out their needs and wants.

Applications for the accelerator aren’t yet open, but civic-minded nerds can sign up to learn more here.

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2 Comments

  • Art Tucker

    While I see great potential here for creating more efficiency and openness in the implementation of government contracts and possibly stream-lining the overall functioning of government in someways, the cynic in me worries that something like this will be easily killed off in the same way that the early versions of the electric car were killed off.  Some of the largest government contractors - large, hulking, inefficient beasts that suck-up billions in tax dollars and have cozy relationships with committees who decide who gets the contract - have significan financial interest in something like this not working.

    However, this is no reason to not try...

  • Asko Kauppi

    Looks like a great initiative. I was thinking when similar action would reach Europe - and then I remembered this:

    ZEF Solutions Oy provides a "electoral engine" service for the 2012 U.S. presidential elections.
    http://blogit.taloussanomat.fi... is a startup. They almost stumbled upon the concept of electoral engine (as far as I know), and now they would be providing that service to the possibly most important election on Earth. This talks a lot of the scalability of solutions.

    Imho, "Code for America" would do well to consult them on how to carry on this program in the right way. Reach them on Twitter as @zefsolutions. Say hi from @bmdesignhki. :)