Civic Tech Products, Industry Optimism on Display at Boston Showcase

There are plenty of problems in government that technology might be able to help fix, like boosting transparency and increasing the efficiency of public services.

But governments—from municipalities on up to the feds—have always been tough customers for startups to crack, thanks to long sales cycles, tight budgets, rules for maintaining fair bidding processes, and other barriers that can pop up.

“Every other industry has had innovation over the last couple of decades,” said Clear Ballot chief operating officer Jordan Esten. “Government hasn’t.”

Esten’s company was one of 11 civic and government tech startups that showcased their products Tuesday night at a Mass Innovation Nights event held at District Hall in Boston’s Seaport district.

The companies demonstrated a variety of problems being tackled in civic tech, such as improving the voting process, enabling direct conversations between leaders and their constituents, making municipal finances easier to track and understand, boosting safety measures for police officers, creating more support tools for recovering addicts, and crowdsourcing public safety information.

Esten expressed optimism that it’s getting easier to convince government officials to adopt new technology. His company developed a system aimed at more accurately and efficiently tabulating paper ballot results in elections.

“They’re pretty fed up with” using dated technology, Esten said of election officials and other government leaders. “The demand is out there.” Clear Ballot’s technology has been tested in several states, and Esten said it’s aiming to get approved for use in Massachusetts next year.

But it’s not always easy for entrepreneurs to get their products in front of government leaders. That was one of the goals of the event, said Mass Innovation Nights founder Bobbie Carlton.

Among the attendees were Mark Nunnelly, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue commissioner, and Sam Hammar, director of strategic partnerships for the state’s Office of Information Technology.

Before five of the companies presented to the audience, Hammar gave a plug for a couple of the state’s tech-related initiatives. She solicited help redesigning the state’s main website, which is being overhauled. She also highlighted an online form that enables startups to submit information about their products and services, helping the state scout for innovations that might improve their operations and public services.

It seems a key step for government is to show up and meet people who are solving problems.

“How do we make ourselves more useful and relevant to our citizens?” Nunnelly said. “Maybe the most important thing going for us is by being here and being part of this extraordinary ecosystem and community. So, embracing the innovation.”

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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