Published on Oct 16, 2013
For the open government movement to sustain itself and continue to grow, we need to build businesses off of projects that emerge from our civic technology community. I’ve seen first hand the limits of volunteer labor, and let me tell you: burnout happens (note: I still volunteer plenty through Open City).
With that in mind, I’ve seen a few different business models crop up in the civic space:
Civic startup - Take some open source platform and turn it in to Software as a Service (SaaS). This is what Code for America startups Textizen, Localdata and Civic Insight are doing. One trend I’ve noticed with this approach: there is a strong pressure to close-source these previously open projects in order to protect from another company eating their lunch. The upside is if you have a hit, they scale up very quickly and you could become the next Socrata with hundreds of customers.
Non-profit / grant seeking - Pitch your app/projects to philanthropy (The Knight Foundation, Google.org, DemocracyFund to name a few). This means playing the grant writing & influence game, which has a steep learning curve and requires some strong networking connections. However, if you can pull it off, you’ll be funded for a good long while but, once that money dries up, you’re back to where you started writing another grant. I’ve observed that in many non-profits, the original mission sadly becomes secondary to sustaining the grant cycle.
Open source consulting - Sell customized versions of your open source project(s). The code remains open; the value is in the custom deployment. Also, sometimes build completely customized open source projects based on your open source portfolio. This is what DataMade, OpenPlans, Nuams and Azavea do.
I’ve found that #3 aligns with my commitment to open source software, while providing a sustainable way to keep making it every day. Growth is slower than with a startup since our revenue is directly correlated with the hours we put in, but less risky for the same reasons.
We’ve also been able to dabble in #2 a bit with an OpenNews Code Sprint, so by no means do you have to pick just one of the above. We may even try out a SaaS project if we can find the right fit.
That being said, there is a growing list businesses and non-profits in this space besides the ones I mentioned above. Below is a list of some of them.
Civic tech consulting companies:
Non-profits that build civic tech:
Also, if you’re interested in shooting for approach #2, here are a few grant sources: