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BillTrack50 wants to make it easier to search, engage with legislation

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

BillTrack50Karen Suhaka shares her vision for BillTrack50.

Give us the BillTrack50 elevator pitch.

BillTrack50 provides convenient and user-friendly 50-state legislative data to both citizens and those with a professional interest.

What civic problem does BillTrack50 solve?

We are making it easier for citizens to research what their state legislature is doing about topics of interest to them, and look at trends and across the country generally.  We’ve also given them the information they need to follow up with their representative, if they like.  More importantly we have tools to help individuals and organizations more easily share information about pending legislation.  For example see: http://missoulainsession.com/stakeholder.php  The embedded bill tracker is our stakeholder page tool; we keep the basics updated — add relevant bills that get introduced, keep up with the latest status, votes, etc. Then the mayor of Missoula can add whatever additional information they would like to share with their residents, such as their position on each bill.

What’s the story behind starting BillTrack50?

I am a serial entrepreneur, and most of my businesses have revolved around compiling publicly available data from state governments, and making it useful to consumers and businesses. After selling my last company I started looking for ideas for a new business. I came across the concept of online legislation tracking, and thought it would be great to break it wide open, and make it available for free for everyone.

We launched in March of 2012, and already have close to 2,000 registered users. However anyone can read bills on the site, registered or not, and in January of 2013 we passed 1,000,000 bills read on the site. People are embracing the ability to share bills they think are important; some share privately to an internal group, but most share publicly.

I think there are lots of smart people in our country, and somewhere someone has a good idea about every challenge we face. I want to get those people informed, and connected, to build a better country for everyone. It especially behooves people in government to stay aware of, and participate in, the democratic process as it relates to their area of expertise.

What are its key features?

Anyone can search for bills or legislators for free, and get a wealth of up-to-date information.  Subscribers can save searches, set up alerts, and share their bill feed with others. The key feature that make all of our services useful is that the bill text and other information is open to everyone. So it’s easy to put our widget on your page to share bills you care about, and your readers can click through and learn more without any barriers. We also have a tool to make it easy to rate legislators and create a graphical, interactive scorecard on your site.

We have also processed all of the bills into uniform structured xml, which allows us to so some neat tricks, like comparing bill texts to see what has changed between revisions.  Having the bills as data also allows me to do fun mathematical analysis, which I share on my blog.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Basic access is free. Searching for bills requires you to register, which is free, you just need to give us your name and email. Subscriptions to save searches and user our other tools start at $500/year. See our product comparison matrix for more details.

How can those interested connect with you?

Videos

NationBuilder brings community software to government

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

NationBuilderNationBuilder Vice President of Community Adriel Hampton introduces the company’s newest offering, NationBuilder Government.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

NationBuilder Government is a unified web, communications and CRM database solution – at less than $100 a month for most entities (yes, really).

What problems does NationBuilder solve for government?

Governments of all sizes struggle with listening well to feedback from a growing number of communications channels. The challenge is to provide better customer service, and to do it cost effectively.

NationBuilder is a unified organizing platform that’s designed to improve the efficiency of communications and constituent/customer service staff.

What’s the story behind NationBuilder?

We’ve been around for a few years, but just launched our Government Edition earlier this month.

Jim Gilliam founded the company after personally seeing the power of people connected by the internet as family and friends helped him get a double-lung transplant six years ago. I met Jim in 2009 while I was running for Congress, and joined NationBuilder as employee number 3 in May 2011.

Doing internet software for government better, more efficiently, is extremely important to me. There’s no reason to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for these technologies.

Why should governments use your SaaS product and not an open source alternative?

Haha, I asked for that, right? So, open source projects have greatly helped to lower the costs of providing services over the web. We use a number of open source technologies including Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL and Liquid (a templating language that we’ve helped extend) – that allow companies like ours flourish at very low cost.

Instead of paying millions of dollars a year in licensing, we’re able to offer end-to-end solutions to cities and officeholders for just hundreds of dollars a year.

Open source products are never free for government – they require technical staff and consultants. We value transparent pricing and require it from our partners, and provide a comprehensive, regularly updated solution that does not require a tech team to implement or maintain.

What are NationBuilder Government’s key features?

Interactive websites, email and text blasting, and constituent services tracking.

With NationBuilder, a government office can manage events, log and track issues, send email newsletters, and manage social media communications and an entire website all in one place.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Our pricing is based on the size of your database – the smallest plans are $19 a month, a large city with 50,000 people on its email list would pay $499 a month with no limit on administrative users.

How can those interested connect with you?

GovFresh Q&A: Neighbor.ly

Neighbor.ly

Neighbor.ly

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Learn how you can get featured.

What

Neighbor.ly

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

Neighbor.ly is a civic crowdfunding platform for U.S. cities and civic-minded organizations. We help fund creative civic projects in communities that care.

What problem does Neighbor.ly solve for government?

With dwindling city budgets, Neighbor.ly provides a way for cities to pre-capitalize tough projects instead of relying on borrowed capital. Every dollar donated up-front means less a city will pay in interest. We’re beginning to steer the platform into a mechanism for cities and civic organizations to come up with a local dollar match to win federal dollars, an increasingly common requirement when looking for federal funds.

What’s the story behind starting Neighbor.ly?

Neighbor.ly launched on July 7, 2012.

The founders are Jase Wilson (CEO), Briston Davidge (COO), Chris Parrott (CFO), Shaul Jolles (CBDO) and Patrick Hosty (Advisor).

Crowdfunding civic infrastructure is a centuries old practice that the Internet has helped to simplify. Neighbor.ly isn’t a new idea, but a variation on platforms like Kickstarter and Spacehive. The concept was sparked earlier this year after founder Jase Wilson attended a presentation by Rob Goodspeed on civic crowdsourcing in other parts of the world. Soon after that, he attended a public meeting in Kansas City, MO to discuss parking ordinances along a proposed downtown streetcar line. The meeting kept getting off topic and triggered a discussion on how the city would fund said transit line. Finally, a conversation between Patrick Hosty and another Kansas Citian took place about a problem with a local bond deal in which both approved of only one aspect of the deal but not the other, causing them to not vote at all. As a direct response to that conversation, Neighbor.ly was created to let people vote with their dollars to support the civic projects that they really care about. Tough or creative projects that likely wouldn’t receive government funding but would have a positive impact on the community.

What are its key features?

Neighbor.ly works directly with entities on projects that are sometimes contingent on a vote or other process that may decide the fate of a project, even if a project is fully funded. If the project is greenlit on our side but fails to go through on the city’s side, money is directly refunded back to the donors. We’re finding that social media is really powerful when engaging communities. Twitter and Facebook are baked into the platform, so when you donate to a project you’re passionate about, you can share it with your networks and show them the good you’re doing in your community. It’s a really great way to rally supporters around a common cause.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

There is no upfront cost, just a 5% platform fee. For every dollar donated, we keep a nickel. We are exploring the idea of consulting with organizations to help them develop a strong campaign in which there would be a consulting fee.

How can those interested connect with you?

Interested parties can reach us at howdy(at)neighbor.ly or by visiting our website at http://neighbor.ly. We’re also on Twitter (@neighborly) and Facebook (facebook.com/neighbordotly).

Raise Your Voice wants to help citizens better engage with legislators

Raise Your VoiceRaise Your Voice founder Dan Busse shares how his new civic venture wants to change the way citizens and legislators engage with one another.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

We are a tool, placed in online news and blogs, that promotes open dialogue between citizens and legislators in response to current issues.

What problem does Raise Your Voice solve for government?

By enabling average people to quickly and easily voice their opinions to their elected officials – from the news, when they’re most inspired – officials get a larger sampling and a better, unfiltered understanding of how their constituents feel.

What’s the story behind starting Raise Your Voice?

I conceived Raise Your Voice during the debates on health care reform. As an Emergency Physician, I grew increasingly frustrated watching the town hall meetings, well meaning attempts at open dialogue, were hijacked by special interests and degenerated into shouting matches. It became clear to me that there were too many layers – pundits, interest groups, and media, between people and their elected officials, so I designed Raise Your Voice to give the average citizen direct and easy access. I placed it in online news, because that’s where people are most inspired to act. We got some small funding and launched in November 2011.

What are its key features?

Our main attribute is that, in being placed in online news and blogs, we make ourselves available when people are the most inspired about current issues (who hasn’t yelled at the news?).

Other key features include:

  • an address book that includes federal, state, local, and county officials (since all politics is local)
  • a “widget configurator” that allows people to generate and download the javascript code to place our button on their sites
  • the ability to share their communications throughout their social networks
  • we are working on integrating an advocacy platform, so people writing about an issue can see other groups working in their area (i.e. I write about logging and the spotted owl then see links to the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society sites)
  • we have a multitude of features we are working on to make interaction easier; all aimed at opening up government.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

We are free.

How can those interested connect with you?

CivicSponsor helps citizens crowdfund their public spaces

CivicSponsor

Source: civicsponsor.com

CivicSponsor wants to change the traditional way we fund our public spaces. Here, its three co-founders outline how their new venture aims to help citizens and public servants think outside the taxpayer box.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

CivicSponsor opens channels in your local government so that you can directly, transparently crowdfund public projects in your community with tax-deductible dollars.

What problems does CivicSponsor solve?

As local governments face massive budget cuts, they leave constituents with only two choices: pay more taxes or get no more projects (likely get cuts). CivicSponsor offers a third option: make elective (not forced) contributions that are earmarked, transparent and audited and that only can be used for new, discrete physical projects. We only work on projects that have no other options: either the local government raises new money, or the projects simply can’t be built. CivicSponsor markets the projects, collects the funds, brings corporate sponsors to the table, and provides the tools to offer transparency and measurement of use of funds in clear terms: square feet of public space built, hours of education funded, etc. Our first project is live on our site at www.civicsponsor.org, where we are raising the necessary funds to build athletic facilities at four middle schools in East San Jose.

What are its key features?

We work with the governments directly. Folks can raise money on other platforms; there are plenty around. But none of the others are officially connected with local government. That makes all the difference when you need to offer a tax deduction (we’re for profit) and you need the funds to be earmarked for specific projects. You can’t simply hand funds to government and tell them how to spend it; general fund contributions won’t work that way. You need governments on board from the start, and we know how to close them. Also, we have a corporate sales function that brings big companies on board with these projects in visible, positive public/private partnerships. Companies are more and more realizing the power that investing in their community can have for recruiting, sales, marketing and other efforts. We sell these projects not as philanthropy, but as crucial community outreach that affects the bottom line in a number of ways. No other site does all of the above.

What’s the story behind starting CivicSponsor?

Our three co-founders had been thinking individually about how to save our home towns ever since the recession hit in 2008. Local governments control the public assets we interact with on a daily basis: the park next door, the school our children attend, the streets we bike on. And as grants and subsidies dry up at the federal and state level, the projects that get cut tend to be the local ones, the ones we see and touch and use every day. It didn’t seem appropriate to stand by and watch this happen, so we put together a plan to bring new, private sector dollars to public projects. We knew that to get more money from individuals and businesses, we needed to offer something more, and it turned out that folks we

For GovHub, all politics is personal

GovHub

Source: GovHub

When no one in Nick Gaines’ UC Berkeley freshman political science class could answer the question “Who is your state senator?,” he tuned in, dropped out and started GovHub with co-founder Adam Becker. Here, Becker shares more about their pursuit of the American dream and how they want to help citizens better engage with their elected officials.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

GovHub provides a personalized platform for citizens to learn about and interact with their officials in each level of government.

What problems does GovHub solve?

For government officials:

  • Lack of name recognition
  • Antiquated, costly public opinion polls
  • Inefficient methods for communicating with their constituents

For citizens:

  • Hard to actually find who represents you in each level of government (to find out who my city councilperson is, I have to click through about ten pages on my city’s website, including a 2mb PDF file)
  • Once you know who represents you, no good way to see what they’re doing in office
  • Communication with representatives often feels futile and is hard to get a personalized response from

What are its key features?

  • Enter your address and see the officials that represent you at each level of government.
  • See their profiles, voting records, social media updates.
  • Interact with them on our discussion board, which uses crowdsourced moderation to determine the issues that are most important to an official’s constituents. (We have Kriss Worthington from the Berkeley City Council doing our first Q+A on April 12th.)

…and some really neat things planned for the future.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

GovHub will always be free for its users. In the future we plan to charge government officials (and candidates) for the different services that can connect them to their constituents.

How can those interested connect with you?

Voter ID and Civic Innovation

Since 2008, there has been a wave of voting law changes that impose barriers to the ballot box. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of “Bloody Sunday,” called the new laws “the most concerted effort to restrict the right to vote since before the Voting Rights Act.”

The right to vote is being chiseled away by voter ID laws that require voters to show government-issued photo ID in order to vote.

Cost of Freedom Project Logo

In December, the Department of Justice blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law on the grounds it would make it harder for minorities to vote in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi and Texas voting ID laws also must be pre-cleared but Texas is not waiting. The Lone Star State filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to speed up a decision.

Strict photo ID requirements will be in place in at least five states – Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin — In November. With Election Day less than nine months away, voters without an official photo ID cannot wait for the challenges to play out at the Justice Department and in the courts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, voters must navigate “The 4 Proofs.”

I am a founding member of the Election Protection Coalition. Still, looking at the infographic makes my head hurt. More worrisome, it discourages voters from completing the application process. So I presented the problem of TMI (read: disenfranchisement by design) at Random Hacks of Kindness and the Hackathon for Social Good. Citizen programmers developed solutions to quickly provide voters with information on how to get a voter ID.

During Social Week Washington, DC, I gave a demo of the Cost of Freedom web-based app developed by Kin Lane, API Evangelist for CityGrid.

Users in Wisconsin can forget about “The 4 Proofs.” Instead, in four clicks or less, they will be able to access information about the state’s voter ID requirements, how to obtain a certified copy of their birth certificate (the document that’s typically produced to establish one’s identity), and the location, hours and directions to the Office of Vital Records using public transit.

I also gave a live demo of the Cost of Freedom text-based app developed by Jack Aboutboul, Twilio’s API Evangelist. Twilio is making an in-contribution of text message services to promote voter education.

To commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we plan to launch the Cost of Freedom App on April 4, 2012.

I will post regular updates about the Cost of Freedom Project and other initiatives that are using civic innovation to protect the right to vote. The conversation about voter ID also gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about disruptive technologies in the public sector beyond election administration.

For more information, please visit us at Facebook.com/CostofFreedom. You can sign up to receive notice when the Cost of Freedom App is launched. Continue reading

Open Town Hall aims to keep online public forums civil

Open Town Hall

In 2007, Robert Vogel and Mike Alvarez Cohen started Peak Democracy to “build public trust in government through online public comment forums that are civil yet meet government freedom-of-speech and transparency laws.” Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall now serves more than 25 government agencies and elected officials.

Vogel and Alvarez share their philosophy and experience building Open Town Hall and helping citizens become engaged by meeting them where they are.

What problem does Open Town Hall solve for government?

Open Town Hall enables governments to provide constituents with online public comment forums that have the order and decorum of government meetings — thereby making the online forums civil, constructive, and legal.

More specifically, the problems that Open Town Hall solves for government include:

  • Diversifying community feedback beyond those few that have the time or inclination to attend public hearings;
  • Providing an alternative to online community blogs that are frequently filled with vitriolic attacks, dominated by a few extremists, and consequently uninviting for most constituents; and/or,
  • Satisfying explicit or latent demand by constituents for their government to offer online public forums (that are civil and informative).

How do Open Town Hall online public comment forums work?

Integrating Open Town Hall into a government’s website can take less than an hour of a webmaster’s time. Peak Democracy provides an HTML snippet to the webmaster, and then the webmaster simply embeds the HTML into a page of the government’s website. The forum’s look (i.e. color, logos, etc) can be easily customized by the webmaster. All of the forum’s IT requirements are provided by Peak Democracy’s servers — including bandwidth, storage and backup, etc.

Government staff access the forums via a password-protected dashboard and backend suite of tools. Staff prepare topics, review the content, and then make the forums available to the public. The forums are then announced to subscribers and the community via email, Facebook and Twitter — as well as announcements at meetings, and other communication channels.

People visit the online public comment forums, learn more about the topics, read and support other perspectives, as well as post their own public comments.

In addition to handling all IT requirements, Peak Democracy’s software and staff monitor comments to maintain civility, authenticate participants to prevent fraud, and provide end-user support.

Government leaders can read the responses and synthesize voluminous feedback using Open Town Hall’s analysis tools. The forums can be archived for public records retention, and printed for distribution at community meetings.

What’s the pricing model, current customers, and how are they leveraging Peak Democracy?

Peak Democracy’s cloud-computing architecture, smart software and economies of scale enable the company to cost-effectively price it Open Town Hall service — as described on this web page. Pricing is based on client population, and starts at $2,400 per year of unlimited use, or $700 per forum — for communities with populations below 25,000.

Open Town Hall is used by over 25 towns, cities and counties. They have launched almost 600 topics, and have had about 50,000 people attend those online forums. All the forums include user surveys with results that are accessible to government staff. Over 96% of user survey respondents indicate that they like Open Town Hall.

Clients are leveraging Open Town Hall to post forums that range from (1) topics agendized on council and commission meetings such as fiscal budgets, annual priorities, and land-use projects, to (2) topics of general interest to government leaders and staff such as transportation studies, sustainability projects, and safety issues.

What are lessons-learned and advice you have for government when it comes to conducting online public comment forums?

Having supported almost 600 online forums from communities across the US (and Canada), Peak Democracy staff has learned a great deal about the best practices for online commuity feedback. For example, online public comment forums should never be positioned as votes or polls — otherwise they can usurp the decision-making autonomy of government leaders.

Learn more about Open Town Hall at the Peak Democracy website.

Spigit launches CitizenSpigit, government crowdsourcing, engagement platform

CitizenSpigitIdea management software developer Spigit announced the launch of CitizenSpigit, ‘a platform that enables government agencies to engage citizens and employees to improve efficiency and operations, as well as to generate actionable ideas.’ The City of Manor, Texas, is the first municipality to deploy the platform, which it uses to power Manor Labs.

The platform is available to government agencies starting at $5,000/month. You can download a product spec sheet or register for a demo.

CitizenSpigit features list:

  • Core Idea Management Platform
  • Pricing starting at 5K per month with unlimited users
  • Available on the GSA
  • Reputation Scores/ Virtual Currency
  • Social Media Tools (i.e. Blogs, Wikis, Polls)
  • Online Incentives Store
  • Standard Reporting
  • Idea Markets
  • Community Management Services
  • Customized site branding

City of Manor CIO Dustin Haisler discusses their use of the CitizenSpigit platform: