Civic Startups: Better Form Processing for Open Government

August 20, 2012 by Brian Busch

It's my pleasure, in my inaugural post on the blog, to announce that Captricity was one of just six companies, from a pool of 200+, selected for the first Code for America Civic Startup Accelerator.  Code for America is a hip organization operates on the belief that government can serve citizens (that's you and me) better by leveraging technology tools to be more open, efficient, and responsive to our needs.  Captricity is a great fit, relieving the burden of form processing and data entry faced governments face in getting the information they need to provide adequate service to citizens.

At the core of CfA are two groups: i) the fellows, developers and designers who give up their high-paying tech jobs for a year to work on open sourced projects for city governments and ii) a network of state and local government "intra-preneurs," changemakers and information systems leaders who are quietly revolutionizing government operations.  Innovators like John Tolva, CTO of Chicago and Marci Harris, founder of POPVOX who spent years working on Capitol Hill.

The Civic Startup Accelerator, a first-of-its-kind, launches CfA's vision of creating an entire industry of tech companies targeting local, state, and/or federal governments as their primary customers ($1.4 trillion is spending I saw recently...).  The program brings together the key leaders from six companies (Aunt BerthaRevelstoneMindMixerMeasured, and us) for a four-month program; we spend one week each month at CfA's hip space in SOMA (San Francisco).  Kuang and I were thrilled to meet Tim O'Reilly and Jen Pahlka, the brains behind CfA, as well as all the staff who made the week run so smoothly.

It was a fantastic week for us, I can't remember how many times I heard "I love your company!" or "This is amazing, it's really needed."  And it's energizing to be around people who are thinking big, really big, and for government.  Ron Bouganim, a wildly successful entrepreneur and angel investor, is the most adamant about "building a whole industry."  And I believe he'll do it.  The program brought together an incredible range of speakers to help us size up and approach the government as a customer (lesson #1: long lead times).  Even more exciting was talking to the other startups in the program about how we could help Aunt Bertha scale up beyond Texas or help in the days immediately after a disaster when people haven't even gotten the computers back up and running yet.

Perhaps most importantly, we got a chance to understand just how large the range of opportunities and use cases for Captricity is within this sector.  We heard stories about the paper flow from overlapping inspection offices in New Orleans addressing blighted properties in the Lower 9th Ward.  And learned how the Department of Transportation road repair system operates entirely electronically, except for one step where road crews actually fill a pothole, fill out a report of the work done by hand, and fax it back to a room of 30 data entry workers who input that information into the electronic system.  Imagine the benefit to the city if we could free up five, or 10, or even all 30 of those workers to do higher-level work by eliminating their data entry needs?  That's something no OCR program will be able to do, but Captricity can.

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