Austin Digerati “Awaken” To Opportunities in Civic Tech Innovation

Xconomy Texas — 

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 the mirror and say, ‘We are not aligned here’ and try to figure out a way to change it,” Phillips says.

Another group looking at innovating in affordable housing is Affordable Central Texas, which is raising a private equity fund to purchase multifamily housing projects in order to keep rents from accelerating too fast. “How do you be the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ when [musicians] can’t afford to live here?” asks David Steinwedell, the group’s CEO. “In places like San Francisco and Boston, that train left the station a long time ago. In Austin, they’re calling ‘All aboard’ on that train right now but it has not left yet. There’s an opportunity to do something.”

The fund plans to purchase properties in the $25 million to $50 million range with between 200 and 400 units, and plans to provide returns similar to other real estate funds: 6 percent to 8 percent over about 8 to 10 years. The first investment should be made by early 2018.

Steinwedell, who formerly led the Urban Land Institute’s office in Austin, says he is targeting high net worth individuals as investors, including some who have made their fortunes in tech. “They care about Austin, as corny as that sounds,” he says. “Their first decision to invest in this is, ‘This helps Austin.’ The second decision is, ‘Oh, this is a pretty decent return, too.’ That makes it all the more better.”

The combination of Austin’s technical know-how and the city’s robust community development sector has enabled these efforts to take root, says Zoe Schlag, managing director of the newly launched Techstars Impact Accelerator in Austin. “These two worlds have been able to develop along parallel tracks and at the same time,” she says. “Whereas in Silicon Valley, the venture world really predated impact investing. Austin is really positioned to bridge these two worlds.”

That’s partly why Boulder, CO-based Techstars decided to start the social impact accelerator—its first ever—in the city. Schlag who previously founded and led the Austin hub of  UnLtd USA, another program focused on social and environmental innovations that worked closely with Techstars.

“Techstars Impact is the result of that collaboration,” she says.

Civitas Learning’s Webber says he believes these activities represent the start of stronger relationship between Austin’s tech sector and the community at-large. The hackathon weekend starts with a panel discussion featuring tech leaders such as Mark Strama at Google Fiber; Brett Hurt, founder and CEO of Data.World; and William Hurley, the founder of Honest Dollar, a fintech company sold to Goldman Sachs last year.

Among the projects the hackers will take on is looking at how campaigns can more easily accept donations made in cryptocurrencies, and how data analytics and social media could enable people to see who among their networks have or haven’t voted in order to use positive peer pressure to encourage people to go to the polls.

“If done well, technology can advance progressive politics,” Webb says.  “As we continue to awaken, it’s exciting to see what our impact could be.”