In May of this year, Code for America began accepting applications for our new Accelerator civic startup incubator program, designed to help startup ventures in the civic space. As my colleague Abhi Nemani mentioned in a recent blog post, the Accelerator program staff expected a couple of dozen applicants. We got a couple of hundred. It’s fair to say that we’re thrilled by the excitement and interest in this opportunity.
Although I play no formal role in the selection process, I was able to review some of the applications and I can tell you this: America’s civic innovators are numerous, they have a ton of fantastic ideas, and they are ready to go!
As part of their application process, each startup was asked to include a brief description of their intended service or product. I fed those descriptions — all 44,000 words of them — into Wordle to generate a word cloud of the most popular words our Accelerator applicants used to describe their ideas. Looking at this data, I think there’s a thing or two we can learn about our civic startups — and what open government is going to look like in the next few years.
1. Data is the backbone
“Data” – and its more refined cousin “information” – is the most prominent concept in our word cloud. The proposed products and services involve the collection, distribution, visualization, transformation, syndication, aggregation, and every other “-tion” word that we could possibly think of, of data. Future civic entrepreneurs know that data is their number one asset, the most critical component of their plans, and the foundation of the products and services that they’re building for 21st century cities.
2. Participation and collaboration are fundamental
Advocates of open government practices call for increased participation and collaboration as we reshape our institutions — and the importance of these concepts is visibly illustrated in this second iteration of the word cloud. “Social,” “public,” “citizens,” “communities” — all of these words represent this drive for giving a voice — a louder and more insistent voice — to the citizens. It’s not enough to listen to The People on election days and during the occasional public commentary meeting; these tools and services are about bringing in the wisdom of the crowds to help inform and perform in real-time. When we see “citizens” and the “public” and “communities” have equal standing with “government,” we’re on our way to open government success.
3. Open government is cutting-edge
Government agencies – whether at the local, state, or federal level – are not classically regarded as trendsetters when it comes to tech. Too frequently, their lack of resources results in a conventional wisdom that government technology is backward, over budget, and years behind a world where innovation advances every few minutes. While Code for America helps US cities fight this perception with code, tools, and community support, it’s clear from our applicants’ self-descriptions that they are ready to jump into the battle with us.
Our applicants want to turn our governments into platforms. Our applicants want to build online tools and services for the staff of our city governments and the people they serve. Our applicants are building websites, mobile apps, back-end systems, tools, integration capabilities, and ways for our people to share, collaborate, and communicate with each other.
And the staff, Fellows, and allies of Code for America can’t wait to help!
Want to disrupt public service? Keep and eye out for next year’s applications cycle, and for CfA’s forthcoming announcement of this year’s selected civic startups. Learn more about Code for America’s Accelerator program!