Web 2.0 Expo: The Opportunity for Civic Startups

Last week at the Web 2.0 Expo, I gave a talk on The Opportunity for Civic Startups.  I was filling in for Code for America‘s Jen Pahlka, and the presentation itself is an hybrid of a version I did at the t=0 Entrepreneurship Festival at MIT a few weeks ago, a version Jen did at Future of Web Apps earlier this year and a version that Andrew McLaughlin has been giving.  Here are my slides.

I broke it down into two main sections: (1) trends that are setting the stage for civic startups, and (2) models/approaches that civic startups are following.  Unfortunately, the timing of the speaker notes on slideshare doesn’t match the slides, so the notes are in off by a few slides, but you can get the idea.

One of my favorite threads in this story is “the rise of the civic hacker” — folks who use their coding & product development superpowers to make cities work better, almost always from outside of official channels.  The “civic hacker ethic”, if you will, is about making shit, and it represents a pretty new way of getting civically engaged — less about arguing policy or politics and more about building something helpful.  What’s even cooler is that there are now a solid handful of civic hackers who have parlayed a passion project on the side into a real business or career: Dan O’Neill & Adrian Holovaty with EveryblockHarper Reed (transit hacker and now Obama campaign CTO), Jon Wegener of Exit Strategy NYC, Joshua Tauber (GovTrack & Pop Vox), Ben Berkowitz of SeeClickFix and many more.

And there’s more where that came from.  I believe that we’re just at the beginning of a big wave of civic startups (here’s looking at you, Code for America 2011 graduates), and I am looking forward to continuing to follow them, help them, and learn from them.

7 comments on “Web 2.0 Expo: The Opportunity for Civic Startups”

hi Nick, I love what Open Plans is doing and your slides gave me many inspirations, even for China, where I am living in. I am wondering if there’s video for your talk online?

Thanks Tony! I don’t believe the videos have been posted yet, but will go up sometime soon on the Web 2.0 Expo site. I’ll leave a comment here when they do, so you should get an email.

Glad to hear you took something away from this!



This is a great presentation. My friend who built portlandoregon.com (somewhat similar to everyblock) who’s look for ways to leverage that with other cities.  

How do “Build on the Platform” model startups become sustainable, find a business model? Currently I only perceive two sources of revenue: screen time for advertising and marketing data.  Am I blind?  

In my mind, “build on the platform” basically means “be an app that consumes gov’t data, and/or talks directly to a gov’t API”.  So, that leaves the question of business model pretty open.  TurboTax is a good example of an app that integrates w/ gov APIs — charging for value-added services.

Great example, Nick. TurboTax has an advantage in that the service was already a business model. Also a serendipitous example, since I was dealing with issues with our sales tax collection site this past week. I like the idea of developing APIs to increase compliance as you have illustrated here by making it easier for citizens to access affordable services provided by third parties.

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