Knight Foundation’s “civic tech” data visualization project reveals surge of startup activity

You might not have heard of “civic tech,” but chances are it has affected your community and its influence will only increase over time. According to a Knight Foundation report released today — the first to track civic tech businesses and investments — the sector has raised $430 million in investments in the past two years and civic tech company launches are increasing 24 percent annually.

Jon Sotsky, the foundation’s director, described civic tech as “technology that’s spurring civic engagement, improving cities and making government more effective.” The field includes a range of private and public organizations, from groups the Knight Foundation and its data analytics and visualization partner Quid designate as “P2P local sharing” (Airbnb) to “community organizing” ( to “data access and transparency” (Open Data Institute).

Knight Foundation

While that can seem like a broad swath of organizations to include under one umbrella, Mayur Patel, Knight Foundation vice president of strategy and assessment, believes that all of these organizations contribute to the greater community. “We’ve taken a fairly broad definition but it’s because we’re inclusive of all the ways people are using technology to improve cities and become involved,” Patel told Gigaom.

As for Airbnb, a lodging platform that can seem more commercial than community, he said “it’s allowing people to be able to unlock some of the assets that they themselves own and provides new kinds of ways for individuals to share their own goods.” In the case of Hurricane Sandy, he said, it also helped displaced people find available housing within nearby communities.

Users can explore civic tech through a bubble treemap data visualization, sorting by themes, communities and companies. Investments are color-coded as either private investments or public grants and the size of the bubbles depends on the size of investments. As you explore each section, you can see the investment types and amounts as well as several other data points, all of which can be downloaded as an Excel spreadsheet.

Visualizations of this type can be crowded by the number of nodes they include, but the Knight Foundation does a good job showing the structure of the civic tech field as a whole. Indeed, the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit geared at benefiting media and the arts, is using the information to make its own investment decisions. The intention is that everyone can get a better view of the field, including new startups trying to find their way in the space.

Some highlights from the report:

  • The civic tech space is dominated by private capital (84 percent).
  • Peer-to-peer sharing of resident-owned goods and services was the fastest growing civic tech type, growing more than 36 percent annually from 2009 to 2012 and attracting more than $240 million in private capital. Civic crowdfunding, public decision-making and voting saw the least funding.
  • Most open government investments come from philanthropic capital (54 out of 75 investments in open government came from foundations).

As with any sector that is measured for the first time, Sotsky admits it is incomplete, which is why they’ve included feedback links for people to add missing civic tech businesses and investments. The intention of the list is to “get a conversation started” so that next year’s civic tech data directory will be more robust.

rise in civic tech