Transparency is a concept that has been discussed by governments for years now and we have seen some amazing progress. There have been great strides towards making data more accessible via readily downloadable spreadsheets and PDFs. That is progress but it still falls short of the ultimate goal. That is because much of this data is difficult to understand and the sheer volume can leave visitors overwhelmed.
In the private sector there are numerous companies who have built their entire business model around collecting, organizing, and delivering data. We live in a world where information overload is a reality and companies that have been able to filter, organize, and deliver simplified and targeted information have been highly sought after by venture capitalist firms.
Unfortunately, many of these firms see the government market as taboo. Civic tech companies that bridge the gap between citizens and governments have found it difficult to find the funding necessary to prototype and launch new products. There have been some advancements here but these startups still rely heavily on grants provided by philanthropic organizations with a desire to advance innovation in the public sector.
The Knight Foundation (www.knightfoundation.org)
One such organization, the Knight Foundation, has established itself as a powerful force in the field of advancing civic technology. The organization has a host of ongoing challenges for grants that have spurred countless innovations in an industry where investment has otherwise lagged. Now the foundation has taken a cue from venture capitalist firms by creating a prototype fund to spur further innovation.
The Prototype Fund was established to help “media makers, technologists and tinkerers take ideas from concept to demo.” It is unique in the field of grant making in that it invests in seed stage ideas versus established organizations. It is also unique in its scope in that it invests in over 80 concepts over the course of a year. In this sense the Prototype Fund is similar to a business incubator or accelerator.
You are probably wondering what type of companies are coming out of this venture. Well, we recently had the chance to talk with Chris Bullock, the founder of ClearGov. They were one of the companies the Knight Foundation recently selected to receive funding. The takeaways from this discussion provide a glimpse into the future of civic tech and how powerful of a tool it can be.
ClearGov currently leverages open financial data from California, Massachusetts, and New York to create over 2,000 unique municipal financial infographics. Here is an example: http://www.cleargov.com/massachusetts/norfolk/city/franklin/
The infographics produced by ClearGov use benchmarking to provide context to financial data that would otherwise be difficult to understand. The site dynamically identifies similar towns by comparing populations and home values in a given radius of the town being compared. Through this approach visitors are able to see how much their town spends on education, for instance, and how this spending compares to similar neighboring towns.
ClearGov provides a glimpse into the power of open data and how it can be leveraged not only to inform but also engage communities. We are glad to see innovations such as this being rewarded and look forward to both the future of ClearGov and the many other prototypes funded by the Knight Foundation.
The future of government transparency hinges on open data and partnerships with private companies to assemble and deliver the data. It is a great tool for economic development, engagement, and rebuilding much needed trust between constituents and governments. Organizations like the Knight Foundation are leading the charge but it is up to government agencies to work with the civic tech companies that come out of these challenges to reap the full benefits.