Techies to the rescue: At Digital Capital Week, an increasing focus on the social good

By Steven Overly
Monday, June 21, 2010

In any other city, co-locating government agencies with tech start-ups might seem like an unnatural fit. But if the District's chief technology officer, Bryan Sivak, can secure investor funding, he intends to marry the two.

The program, designed to solve city efficiency issues through technology, may be the most physical manifestation of a trend gaining traction in the region: technology for public good.

It's a movement that organizers and attendees at last week's Digital Capital Week said is largely unique to, or at least more amplified in, an innovation community nestled alongside the federal government.

"For the first time I heard a couple people tell me, 'Yeah, I want to do a start-up,' but their start-ups are nonprofits and for us being in the tech start-up space, you don't usually hear a lot about nonprofits," said Jen Consalvo, a co-founder of Shiny Heart Ventures, a tech firm that co-produced DCWeek. "I think there really is something new happening."

Washington's technology landscape is still dominated by major contractors that pull in billions of dollars providing information technology and defense services to the federal government.

But from mobile applications that use government data to social media tools that bolster political campaigns or social causes, Consalvo and others at the weeklong festival said a growing crowd of iPhone-wielding innovators want to use their skills for social good.

On Thursday night, members of this burgeoning community packed into New York Avenue's Lux Lounge for a Tech Cocktail, one of the less traditional type of events that punctuated DCWeek's schedule of panels and information sessions.

As music pulsated throughout the dimly lit nightclub, attendees clung to drinks and mingled with people from nine start-ups showcasing their latest innovations. Of the companies on display, five were oriented toward community development or social good.

Woodley Park native Adam Bonnifield co-founded as a way for political campaigns and nonprofits to better use links on Twitter. Bonnifield said the for-profit company was not initially conceived for political and nonprofit use, but that's the application that most resonated in this area.

"This is what people latched onto, and that's exciting to us because it is what we care about," Bonnifield said.

A few feet away, Michael Mossoba was demonstrating the Goodness 500, a Web site that ranks Standard & Poor's 500 companies based on environmental impact, charitable donations and executive diversity.

"For me, companies need to be part of the solution to the world's problems," Mossoba said. "A lot of the problems that we have that are created by business need to be solved by business as well."

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