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The Rise of Civic Tech

The Rise of Civic Tech
Knight Foundaiton

Government has become one of the final frontiers for technological disruption. Just look at healthcare.gov, says Jon Sotsky, the director of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation. The troubled website looks like just the latest illustration that government can't apply tech effectively (or find the people who can). That the two don't go together – bureaucracy and basic coding savvy – seems almost a cliché.

Amazingly, though, that's beginning to change.

"The more people use technology as consumers," Sotsky emails me, "the more they expect technology to shape their experience as citizens."

At the intersection of these two domains – technology and civic life – a small and fascinating sector has been taking root for the last few years. It includes for-profit companies like Socrata, which builds platforms for governments to publish their open data, and non-profits like TurboVote, which simplify the voter registration process. It includes entrepreneurs crowd-funding community projects, making sense out of public data, and helping you tell your government what you want.

Together, these types of companies and organizations have loosely come to define "civic tech" – and the potential for a future where technology finally, seamlessly, significantly alters how we relate to government and our neighbors.

Until now, it's been difficult to measure how large this "civic tech" field is, and how fast it's actually growing. Now the Knight Foundation has attempted to put together some early assessments. In a report released today, Sotsky and Mayur Patel identified and mapped 208 civic tech companies and organizations, in a sector that's been annually growing by about 24 percent since 2008 in the launch of new start-ups.


Knight Foundation

Knight's definition of "civic tech" is an admittedly broad one, encompassing peer-to-peer companies like Lyft that don't necessary involve government but that primarily promote some kind of civic outcome (in this case ride-sharing). As Patel explained it: "Rather than narrowly defining this in terms of political life, we wanted to look at all the ways residents are engaging in their communities including sharing their time, information and resources."

"Sharing," not surprisingly, is the fastest growing cluster here:


Knight Foundation

In all honesty, there's no universal definition of civic tech (another sign of the sector's youth). But this other detail is telling: Private investors and foundations have poured $430 million into 102 of these companies between January of 2011 and May of this year. Eighty-nine percent of that money has come from private capital (most of it notably going to projects geared more toward community action than open government). Oddly enough, the largest individual investor: Ashton Kutcher.

Of course, this report about tech comes with a technological component, an interactive digital network map of the civic tech universe (at least as it has been identified here). The diagram at top draws on the same dataset (with green nodes representing open government organizations and purple ones community action). You can play with the data visualization here. The sheer fact that anyone has bothered to create such a thing reinforces the idea that this fledgling cluster of tech companies invested in civic life is actually growing into something.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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