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

By Steven Overly
Monday, June 21, 2010; 13

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."

Mark Drapeau, the director of innovative social engagement in Microsoft's Public Sector division, said Washington's public service "flavor" is unlike Silicon Valley or New York. There, he said, people want to "make a buck." In D.C., they want to make a buck and improve the community.

"To some degree I think the kind of people that come here and stay are the kind of people that care about government or public service or public good, and if you don't, you sort of end up not very happy here," he said.

The actual size, and perhaps more importantly the economic might, of this new community is largely uncalculated. More than 5,300 people registered for DCWeek events, said festival co-producer Peter Corbett, though fewer people actually attended.

Corbett, chief executive of iStrategyLabs, said future growth of the community is currently hindered for two main factors: the city's lack of investors and its unfavorable environment for small business.

The Oakton-based Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council has ranked D.C. behind all 50 states on its Small Business Survival Index since at least 2004. The list, which factors in tax and other public policies that impact the business community, placed neighboring Virginia and Maryland at 10 and 37, respectively, in 2009.

But many credit the administrations of President Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) with doing more to embrace technology than either of their predecessors. As an example, several public agencies actively disseminate information on Twitter and 272,677 federal data sets are now available for public use.

When it comes to technology start-ups, particularly civic-minded ones, access to new information often gives birth to new business ideas.

Whether a more open government is spawning innovation or innovators are prodding for a more open government is debatable, but in this metropolitan area, the answer may not necessarily matter. The two now seem to be moving in step.

"I think we're in the early stage of a big movement," said Katie Stanton, a private sector convert who now advises the State Department's Office of Innovation. "I think it's going to make our government more effective."

In addition to the incubators, the District's Sivak said, the city will initiate "Decode DC," a broad, though still not completely defined, plan to urge developers to create Web applications and technologies that help the city.

"Anywhere that there's a developer that has an interest in fixing something that is aggravating to them or they have an issue with, they'll be able to as long as the information is available," Sivak said. "That's the whole key."

That notion may eventually distinguish the identity of the region's technology sector from that of other major cities, said Stephen Moore, president and chief executive of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, a public-private partnership that aims to encourage business in the District.

"These people are coming here with their ideas and looking to make a difference," Moore said. "It's not a tech transfer thing; these people are interested in changing communities.

"I think we are just at the front end of seeing what that really means."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company