Austin Digerati “Awaken” To Opportunities in Civic Tech Innovation

Austin Digerati “Awaken” To Opportunities in Civic Tech Innovation

Austin—Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin earlier this year were a wake-up call for Dan Webb.

Webb is director of strategic partnerships at edtech startup Civitas Learning, and his wife is an immigrant who had just become a U.S. citizen in February. “We were getting calls from friends of ours asking, ‘If my wife and I get taken, can you watch our kids?’ ” he says. “I’ve never been active in politics—I voted here and there, and shared my opinions with friends—but for me it became personal in a way that it never was.”

The result is the ATX Political Hackathon taking place this weekend, in which around 200 people have signed up to crowdsource tech solutions that could help the Texas Democratic Party. “If you’re running for statewide office, you’re probably raising millions of dollars and can afford sophisticated tools,” Webb says. “If you’re further down the ballot, you don’t have the same resources or volunteer base but have the same problems.”

Donald Trump’s election as president nearly a year ago has resulted in a groundswell of political activism across the country. And Austin techies like Webb are, in increasing numbers, starting to engage in the way they know best: using tech tools like data analytics and programs like accelerators and hackathons.

For example, Shion Deysarkar, founder and CEO of analytics firm Datafiniti, and Steve Blackmon, vice president of technology at software firm People Pattern, launched Blue Squad last March, a self-described “digital coalition to help Texas turn blue.” RideScout founder Joseph Kopser, who sold his transportation startup to Daimler AG in 2014, told me earlier this year he is running for US Congress as a Democrat because hyper-partisan rhetoric is impeding Texas from making progress on real issues.

For Ashley Phillips, managing director at Impact Hub in Austin, the civic tech activity comes from a sense that, especially in the current fractious political environment, Austin must walk the walk and not just talk the talk. “We want to be and claim to be a progressive community,” she says. “It’s becoming more and more exposed that our values have not made their way very strongly into our systems.”

There is frustration, she and others say, not only with what’s happening in Washington but also a realization that the tech community must help to preserve some of the cultural values that they believe made Austin a top tech city in the first place.

Impact Hub is applying the accelerator model to seek solutions to one of Austin’s toughest problems: affordable housing. In the six years from 2010 to 2016, the group says the median family home price in Austin has increased 45.25 percent, while median family income has only gone up by 5.42 percent.

Companies such as Google, JP Morgan, and Buildfax are sponsoring the accelerator’s nine startups, which are developing innovations such as a social impact fund or 3-D printed cement homes. “As much as we drink our own Kool-Aid, people are willing to look in … Next Page »

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