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New Knight Report Maps Growing Civic Tech Ecosystem

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 4 2013

Investor networks in civic tech, per Knight Foundation report

The Knight Foundation has released a fascinating and valuable, if incomplete, report on "The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field." It's the first major effort I've seen to define and map this growing space, and covers 209 companies that have received funding since 2011 in its purview, including the ones that Knight itself has poured more than $25 million into in that period.

Knight's researchers--Mayur Patel and Jon Sotsky--working with Sean Gourley and Daniel Houghton of Quid, a firm that does data analytics and network analysis--looked for organizations from six overlapping fields: government data, collaborative consumption, crowd funding, social networks, and community organizing. They seeded their list with organizations that are generally viewed as core to civic tech innovation and then hunted for more, using key words like "civic," "open government" and "open data" to discover more from media reports and investment data. Then Quid clustered organizations together based on how they described the function and purpose of their tech.

At the same time, they also dug up a ton of information about investments in these organizations, starting from the beginning of 2011 and up through the present. But the headline of Knight's press release, "More than $430 million invested in tech organizations focused on advancing citizen engagement and open government since 2011" is a bit misleading. That's because the report includes a number of companies like Waze, Sidecar, Getaround, Carpooling.com, Couchsurfing, Zimride, Wheelz and Airbnb in that total. While its true that these kind of peer-to-peer sharing platforms can have civic side-effects, they really can't be said to have "advancing citizen engagement and open government" as their primary purpose. Subtract the investments in just those eight and the investment total drops by nearly half.

The report found two primary themes to the 209 organizations they mapped: open government and community action. In the former are projects advancing government transparency, access to government data and services, and civic involvement in the democratic process. in the latter are projects doing peer-to-peer information sharing, crowdfunding and other forms of collaboration. These they then broke down further into more specific clusters and then they also analyzed levels and sources of investment to each. One takeaway: private investors (VC firms, companies like Google, and individuals) are far and away more interested in "community action" investments (Knight's term for peer-to-peer sharing, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and neighborhood forums, though that last one is just one company, actually, NextDoor.com). "Foundations account for more than half of the investments in Open Government," the report's authors write.

The report comes with a data-rich spreadsheet on all the companies and projects included, chock full of individual investor data and dollar figures. I suspect development directors across the sector will be poring over that for days to come. But people will also want to ping Knight with corrections and addition to this data: it's clearly incomplete, as the study's authors admit in their preface. Thus companies like SeeClickFix, which are clearly doing civic tech, are not included because their investment round took place before January 2011.

There's also a fun interactive data visualization of the field that comes with the report.

One really tantalizing piece of the report is a network map of funder relationships showing links where people or institutions invest in the same organizations. Ashton Kutcher, YCombinator, SV Angel, Crunchfund, Aviv Nevo and General Catalyst all turn out to be central players. Foundations "are largely peripheral" to the investor network, Knight found. The interactive version of that map has not been released.

Jon Sotsky, one of the report's authors, tells me that "This is just a version 1.0 attempt to begin tracking activity and investment in the field. As part of the outreach approach, we’ll be actively asking people to send us feedback and suggestions for organizations and investments not presently captured so we can include them in a refreshed analysis in 2014."

He adds, "The lack of data about the breadth of activity in civic tech has limited coordination and learning in the field. By beginning to chart organizations and investments, the analysis begins to lay the groundwork for discussing the effectiveness of civic tech tools and generating common insights about impact."

He also says the interactive funder map may eventually go public. "We’re certainly eager to iterate the data visualization tool over time using the feedback we receive for this beta version."

Hopefully, in the next round, Knight's research team will expand the scope of its analysis beyond investment as the primary unit of measure. Big money doesn't necessarily mean big impact or even a big footprint. If we only look for things that have a dollar sign next to them, that means a civic technology like the hashtag can't be included in this ecosystem, even though we know it has huge value for civic engagement. And while investment is a strong measure of interest, it doesn't tell us much about impact. Yahoo paid Mark Cuban $5.9 billion for Broadcast.com, but that doesn't mean bubkes. The $21 million investment in NextDoor.com doesn't mean NextDoor is having a bigger impact on civic engagement than, say, Ushahidi, but since Ushahidi has garnered a few million in funding, it looks less significant. The light is bright where the money burns, but that doesn't mean it's being spent well.