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SF Firm Building Free ‘Innovation Wiki’ for Government

Govlaunch has crowdsourced information from over 150 governments in 37 states. Among its California users are the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Rafael and Corona.

When James Alfano co-founded Govlaunch with Barry Greenfield in 2016, he envisioned a product directory for government technology, like a search tool for public officials to see what was available to them. But the more he talked with officials, the more he realized the important innovations weren’t just material but strategic, involving everything from design to processes to management.

Almost three years later, Alfano and his seven-member team in San Francisco have retooled Govlaunch to be an “innovation wiki,” a free, private platform for any employees of local government to share details of their projects or initiatives. Five months into launching the website’s “projects” component, Alfano caught up with Government Technology last week to explain the changes and what’s in store for Govlaunch as a free resource.

“[Local governments] are doing lots of stuff to reduce costs and improve services that don’t require products or technology,” he said. “At the end of the day, we decided that the best way to help these folks innovate better was to provide a medium where they can more easily share what they’re doing — what’s working, what’s not working.”

One Govlaunch user, Sacramento’s Chief Innovation Officer Louis Stewart, offered as much in an emailed statement.

“We were interested in highlighting the great work our city is doing and were looking for a platform to share and learn,” he wrote. “GovLaunch provides that.” 

Other California cities that are using the platform include Los Angeles, San Rafael, Corona and Santa Monica. In all, almost 30 city and county governments in California are using Govlaunch. The state so far does not. 

Two years ago, Govlaunch had a list of vendors and products, and $1 million from seed investors. Today, Alfano said the site is pre-populated with pages for every city, town and county government in the U.S., Puerto Rico and other territories, amounting to more than 20,000 pages in total. Of those, more than 150 governments in 37 states have joined the site and added information on close to 500 projects and 1,000 technology tools.

Any local government employee can join, pending verification via LinkedIn or phone calls if necessary. Once verified, users can add projects, link to open data portals or tools they’re using, indicate whether those are open source or proprietary, and share other information on what they’re doing. In turn, they can search the site for tips and projects in other agencies — for example, which local governments are experimenting with chatbots — and filter results according to a jurisdiction’s size and budget.

“No one really has time to read case studies anymore, let alone write them, so we built out these modules to make it really easy to quickly share what they’re doing, the tools involved, any relevant resources, if they’re working with other governments, and we’ve built it into a community platform that ties (these) together,” Alfano said. “We’re trying to build this in a way that, no matter what size and budget you have, as a community you can find projects that are relevant to you that you can actually attempt to try.”

Alfano was adamant that information on the site is accessible only to users who are verified local government employees; although, by request, Govlaunch has added an option for governments to create a public-facing version of their profile to share with constituents.

He also didn’t want to create an information-sharing community driven by vendors, for fear that it would be more promotional than practical, nor did he want one on which governments would be unwilling to share cautionary tales. He credited his wife, co-founder and chief operating officer, Lindsay Pica, with insisting that Govlaunch remain a community for local governments.

“We have to draw a very strict line as to where nongovernment actors can participate in this,” he said. “We want real content from the folks on the ground who are actually doing this stuff. … By making this private community, the idea is for it to be a safe space to share what might not have worked, because in a lot of cases that’s even more valuable than what did work.”

That said, Govlaunch is carving out a space for nonprofits and other organizations to participate, too. Alfano said the company is beta-testing a feature that allows users to invite other governments or groups to communicate through the site without giving them access to its private content.

Two years after telling GovTech that monetizing the site would come later, Alfano said he has plans for that to happen “pretty soon” but wasn’t ready to specify. But he said his team has no intention of “bastardizing” the site by selling information about users or Web traffic to vendors, or inundating it with advertising. He said the company’s goal is to cultivate an international community for crowdsourcing the largest library in the world for local government innovation, starting with plans to expand to Canada early next year, relying largely on word of mouth.

He said feedback has been encouraging so far.

“This government innovation ecosystem is really exciting and interesting. There are so many new people coming into the sphere. There are new vendors, new nonprofits … and a lot of innovation happening, but the people writing about it … are not always the governments themselves,” he said. “We’re really trying to make this useful for governments of all shapes and sizes.”

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.