Building the Civic Technology Ecosystem

One of the most important challenges facing the civic technology community is getting governments to embrace the new solutions and services being developed by civic hackers and smart, agile firms with big ideas for making government work better.

The open data movement has helped create an ecosystem for apps that make consuming and using government open data quick and convenient. There are hundreds of third party apps for transit riders that take advantage of open data, as well as an ever growing array of apps for adopting fire hydrants, assessing the status of vacant properties, evaluate the quality of schools, locating a good parking spot and finding retailers that accept SNAP benefits.

Each of these apps, and the many more that are developed on a weekly basis by the growing ranks of civic hackers and entrepreneurs that use open data, support the mission of government and are an important complement to what government agencies are doing to serve citizens.

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But the next chapter in the evolution of the civic technology ecosystem will be about government agencies themselves embracing the tools developed by outside developers. And the challenge for those working in the world of civic technology is that getting government agencies to embrace these newly developed tools has traditionally not been easy.

The Adoption Challenge

In the Summer of 2011, a small group of civic hackers developed a new app that had the potential to dramatically improve the operations of San Francisco’s Muni Transit service. The team built an iPad app that would allow transit managers to track the position of buses and other transit assets in real time. However, months after being developed and demonstrated to city leaders, the app remained unused.

Most who saw the SMART Muni app — including Edwin M. Lee and 15 other mayoral candidates in October, and senior leadership from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in February — considered it an improvement over the four-channel radio and old paper clipboards currently used to track problems. But now, 10 months later, the app that the volunteer developers created for Muni is unused.

This isn’t the first time that an app developed by outside volunteers has failed to be adopted by a government agency, and it will undoubtedly not be the last. While there have been some notable victories in this area, creating a framework in which civic hackers and entrepreneurs can build smart new apps that can easily be adopted by governments has proved daunting and left many in the civic technology community worried about the movement’s future viability.

Helping to solve this critical challenge is where the Accela Civic Platform comes in.

The Accela Civic Platform

The biggest challenge facing governments in adopting new civic technologies is the absence of an easy way to incorporate new solutions into their existing IT infrastructure. At Accela, we’re working to address this challenge through the Civic Platform and the Accela Construct API.

The Construct API provides a way for third-party developers to build apps that integrate directly with the Accela Automation system that our customers use to issue permits, licenses, manage assets and dozens of other things that governments do to provide services to the people they serve. It’s the embodiment of the idea of government as a platform, first championed by Tim O’Reilly, and which became the impetus for the civic hacking movement.

Our Civic Platform allows governments to engage with outside developers and leverage third-party apps to enhance their services without investing in new infrastructure. It helps fosters the development of mature, reliable civic solutions that don’t burden governments with costly maintenance and upkeep.

For developers and civic technologists, the Accela Civic Platform provides an easy way to develop new solutions for a broad audience of potential government customers. Because we offer support for development partners and those developing solutions using our Construct API, developers get the assurance of a more reliable revenue stream to help support continued development and enhancements to their apps.

In addition, by leveraging the Construct API and the Accela Civic Platform, developers and civic startups can avoid the long, costly, complicated procurement process that is typically required when engaging with governments. The Civic Platform makes it quick and easy to integrate with existing Accela customers, and our developer resources help civic innovators get started quickly.

The Future of Civic Innovation

The Accela Civic Cloud provides a framework for getting new civic technology into the hands of government employees – helping to lower costs, improve operations and enhance the quality of public services.

The next chapter in the evolution of the civic technology ecosystem will be about government agencies themselves embracing the tools developed by outside developers and civic hackers. The “adoption challenge” is real, and its one we need to figure out if governments are going to fully realize the benefits of civic innovation and the efforts of those participating in civic hacking events all over the country.

The Accela Civic Cloud is one of pieces of the foundation on which the next chapter of civic innovation will occur.

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