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The Future of Civic Tech: Open Data and Open Gov’ts

We recently saw a fascinating interview that NCDD supporting member Della Rucker recently published on her website EngagingCities that we wanted to share. Della interviewed the head of a key civic tech company, Accela, on the results of a recent paper on trends in civic technology, and the conversation is quite educational. We encourage you to read the interview below or find the original here.

How big is Civic Tech and where is it going? One on one with Mark Headd of Accela

engaging cities logoIn late 2014, Accela released a white paper with the International Data Corporation that quantifies the potential scope, value, and growth potential of the Civic Technology field.  Accela’s Developer Evangelist, Mark Headd, appears frequently at EngagingCities through his thought-provoking personal blog, civic.io.

I caught up with Mark a couple of weeks ago to talk about the present and future of civic technology.  We touched on the message that open data sends about a city, the unique challenges that smaller cities face in opening data, and the role of technology vendors in helping make that happen.

My thanks to Mark for the great conversation and to Accela for the white paper, which you can access here.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Della Rucker, Managing Editor, EngagingCities:  First of all, tell me a little bit, in your own words, about Accela and why it is that Accela commissioned the study that IDC did?

Mark Headd, Developer Evangelists, Accela:  Well, Accela is a company that provides software to governments in support of their business licensing, land management, permitting, food safety inspection, service requests, and so on, so we have a whole suite of software that helps government do the job of governing,

Our flagship product is the Accela Civic Platform. It’s used by hundreds of governments around the world. Several years ago, the decision was made to engineer it so that there was an API that would provide access to the platform so you could connect third party applications to it.

I think Accela very rightly could be described as a company that saw the potential of civic technology before it was cool. Before it was widely accepted as being cool.

We very much bet our hand on the fact that third parties, that civic software developers, civic startups, and others would want to build things on top of our platform. Because of the things that governments use Accela’s platform for, our platform is chock full of really valuable information. The transactions that our platform supports – business licensing, permitting, all of these things – are critical functions of government.

One of the things that attracted me to Accela was that the fact that we can open up this kind of data and support transactional interactions on our platform through an API and through publishing open data. It’s been really exciting.

The report is a complement to that earlier investment in the platform around civic technology. It looks at, where are we going? What does the future of civic technology look like?

We’re not the only ones who do this. The Knight Foundation did recently, too. The reason we did it was because we wanted to articulate one of the reasons why, several years ago, we started to position ourselves to be ready for this trend in civic technology. I think universally, the outlook for the development of civic technology is pretty bright.

Della: Was there anything in there that surprised you, that confirmed something that you were already sort of aware of but hadn’t fully seen documented? Was there anything in there that particularly was revelatory for you?

Mark:  Well, certainly the size of the impact, which is in the billions, to quantify that impact, I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a really good outcome of the report.

Like anything else, predicting the future is difficult. To me, that’s the primary takeaway, that this is something we’re going to continue to see. Governments are going to start investing heavily in this area. It’s an area that’s going to start to mature.  To me, that’s something that I think will resonate with the people, that I think most of them innately had this sense that it was going to mature and going to really start to solidify.

Even to folks that aren’t in the civic technology field, I think this would probably wake some folks up and really help to shine a light on what civic technology is and how it’s changing what governments do and the potential future benefit for that.

Della: The report does a good job at a high level of identifying a lot of the broad factors that are driving governments’ need, their impetus to be investing in civic technology. That ranges all the way from demands on their own budgets and the need to increase internal efficiency, to how citizens increasingly prefer, and assume that they should be able, to interact with a government of any kind, whether local or state or larger.

What do you see as the current and near future barriers? What’s keeping this from being a full‑blown thing already, for lack of a better word?

Mark:  Well, I talked about this a little bit at the Code for America Summit last year. Open data is a really critical part of all this because it’s usually one of the core ingredients that we see in civic technology solutions. But, even where it’s not directly used, when governments publish even simple open data, the government is essentially saying, “We’re ready. We’re ready to collaborate.”

That kind of an expression is critical, because what’s unique about civil technology is that it’s something that’s not wholly in a government. It requires people outside of a government. It requires citizen engagement. It requires a new way of partnering.

Governments are able to articulate that they are ready to collaborate and willing to collaborate through opening data.  Open data is sort of the expression of that intent; without that you have a big impediment to the technology. The ability of government to collaborate in a new way, that’s what makes civic technology special.

If we look at who’s doing open data right now, it tends to be larger cities. More and more of the larger cities are doing it and fewer of the small‑to‑mid‑sized cities are doing it.

If you just look at the city level, there’s a stark contrast between big cities, the biggest cities in the country. If you look at the 20 biggest cities in the country, the 10 biggest cities in the country, I think nine out of 10 are doing open data.

If you look at the cities that have populations between 100,000 and 500,000, and there are a lot more of those cities in this country than big cities, the minority of them are doing any sort of work on open data. We need more governments, particularly municipal and local governments, to embrace open data, even if they’re not releasing vast troves of data because they may not have them.

If you’re a city of 75,000, you may not have a vast trove of data. But by starting down the road of open data, you have expressed a willingness to work with people. You’ve expressed a willingness to collaborate in a new way and that’s an essential ingredient to civic technology. In my mind, that’s one of the biggest impediments.

Della: That’s intriguing because there’s a technical component or maybe a functional component to that. First of all, a smaller city typically has relatively minimal internal staff. And often they’ve got less exposure to broader trends in the world because they’re trying to manage the issues of their community with a very shoestring budget.

But there’s also the issue of, do they have the technology? Can they find the technologists or the technology‑savvy people within their communities, or that they can access in one form or another, to help make that happen? Do you have any thoughts on how these smaller communities where this need is so prevalent may be able to start overcoming some of those barriers?

Mark: I think one of the things these smaller governments can and should do is they need to start insisting that their vendors are building open data – or the ability to support civic technology, if you want to think about it more generically – into their products. One of the things we do at Accela, we try and educate our customers on civic technology, what it is, and how they can publish data, how they can leverage our platform to support civic technology.

I think that’s critical that the vendor community start to do this more, but to some extent they’re not willing to do it unless their customers demand it. I think that’s something we’ll start to see.

Whether they’ll work with groups like ICMA and National League of Cities and others who pool their influence, I think we’ll probably start to see that as well.  But, that’s something they need to do.

Smaller governments, more than others perhaps, rely on outside vendors for technology expertise. It’s critical that vendors, and we’re one of them, start to walk the walk on civic technology.

Della:  But it’s not in the vendor’s self‑interest typically to push the clients to take on something that the client doesn’t have any clue how to do yet, and I’m overstating that obviously.

Mark:  Well, if we’re right that the market for government civic technology is north of $6 billion in spending, then even self‑interested vendors are going to see the benefit of that. They’re going to want to get with the program because it is in their interest to do it. I don’t think vendors who do that are acting in a particularly self‑interested way.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, right? Companies have shareholders and their responsibility is to maximize the return for their shareholders. Also the government is getting the benefit. I don’t think those two things need to be at odds.

I think we’re approaching the place where vendors are acting in a predictable self‑interested way, also providing a benefit to their customers. It’s in vendors’ interest to make their customers look good and be successful.

Certainly it’s in our interest to do that. I don’t think that’s at cross purposes with governments wanting to make their jobs easier by being able to leverage civic technology more efficiently.

I think we’re coming to a point here, where it is beneficial for governments to get involved with civic technology and support it more. I think it will actually be profitable for companies to do as well.

Della:  I appreciate you articulating that so clearly. Let me ask one more question and that is, we have here in this report a pretty concise picture of the existing and near‑term state of the broader market.

When we’re having a conversation like this two years from now, whether it’s at a Code for America summit, whether it’s a conversation like this, if you try to put on your prognosticator hat here, what do you think we might be talking about at that point, a couple of years from now?

Mark:  Well, I don’t know if I can give you an accurate prediction two years from now. I think we’ll still be talking about open data. I think we’ll be talking more and more about open standards, standards for data. I’m optimistic that we’ll have many more of them in two years because they actually make it easier for governments to adopt civic technology.

I don’t know all of the things we’ll be talking about, but I guarantee you in two years we’re still talking about open data and, increasingly, we’re talking about standards for open data that make it easier for vendors, civic start‑ups, and even civic hackers to build things for one government that can be easily ported to another government without a lot of difficulties.

Della:  That’s such a critical component. First of all, with the multi‑pronged ecosystem around this issue, there has to be a common language amongst them. Certainly, that’s starting to develop, but that’s something that, I think, is going to become more and more crucial.

That’s also, I suspect, going to take away some of the fear. Essentially, there’s a little bit of a fear of the unknown for a lot of governments and, probably, vendors for whom this is new territory.

I think that’s so insightful of you to put your finger on standards, which sounds boring, but that’s such a crucial piece for making this something that people from wherever within this system can transition into and make it effective. There’s a functional side, but there’s also a cultural side that

Mark:  I don’t know that I can emphasize it more strongly than to say that the standards are what are going to take civic technology to the next level. The recognition that open data is more than just this raw material, even though it’s that, it’s more than that.

It’s a way for a government to advertise that they are ready to collaborate in new ways. To me, that’s one of those foundational agreements for civic technology. You can’t do this without governments making that articulation.  Especially smaller governments.

Cities like New York and Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston – they’re big cities, so the data that they release, all on its own, is compelling because it involves so many people. Smaller governments don’t have that same kind of data. It’s more than just the data itself.

It’s a government’s way of advertising to the world that they’re ready to collaborate in a new way. If you don’t have that, I don’t think you can do civic technology correctly.

Della:  At some point, it would be interesting to have a follow‑on conversation with you, maybe we can pull in some other folks, to talk about what is starting to emerge in the smaller markets. We’ve all heard a lot about Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, et cetera. That might be a really interesting follow‑up conversation.

Mark:  Sure. Absolutely.

Della:  Thank you so much, Mark, for taking the time to talk.

Mark:   I look forward to chatting with you again soon.

You can find the original version of this EngagingCities interview at www.engagingcities.com/article/how-big-civic-tech-and-where-it-going-one-one-mark-headd-accela.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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