Sketch City: New Home for Houston’s Civic-Minded Tech Entrepreneurs

Houston has a new hub dedicated to fostering civic innovation.

Called Sketch City, it’s the latest organization to pop up on the city’s startup scene, and its goal is to connect techies with civil servants interested in using software to make Houston and Harris County run better.

“It’s more important than ever that our government understands technology and how it can help them,” says Jeff Reichman, a Houston consultant who founded Sketch City. “It can decrease costs, improve citizen communications, and improve services.”

Sketch City—so named because Reichman says he wants the organization “to provide a canvas for people to sketch out the city they want to live in”— is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status. The group has set up shop in a building in downtown Houston, in space that Reichman rents for his firm, January Advisors.

The city of Houston itself employs about 20,000 people, many of whom are located nearby at the downtown City Hall complex. Reichman’s vision is for the Sketch City office to be a friendly place for city employees, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and software developers to work together on projects. “We hope this will be a place of serendipitous interaction,” he says.

Many organizations focus on social entrepreneurship and within that, civic entrepreneurship is growing. Southeast Michigan, in particular, has seen a boom in this type of activity, including the University of Michigan’s Social Venture Fund.  In January, Civic Hall opened in New York as a place for “hacktivists,” public-sector workers, and techies to gather and work on civic-minded projects.

While the apps and software created by these projects live in the virtual world, tech community leaders say having a dedicated physical space in which to create them helps jumpstart the innovation process. “We’ve had these hack nights for two years, bouncing from office to office,” Reichman says. “We regularly have 50 people show up each time, and it’s difficult to book a new place every month.”

Despite the reputation of government workers as out-of-touch and unbending bureaucrats, Reichman says the hackathon projects have been warmly embraced by city employees. “There are some really incredibly creative people working for the city who come to these meetups and participate in projects,” he adds.

The hack nights had been funded through an affiliation with the Code for America Brigade program. Now, those local Brigade chapters are being asked to become self-sufficient, Reichman says. Sketch City is a way to keep those hacking projects going.

I first met Reichman in May 2013, shortly after Xconomy founded the Texas bureau, at a city-wide hackathon aimed at using technology to make the city serve its constituents better. Nearly 300 professional and amateur software developers formed 26 teams tackling projects such as apps that would provide a comprehensive list of the city’s bike trails, a better way to seek out and pay for city permits, and an online database for real-time restaurant inspections.

Right now, the hackers are working with the city on two apps—one that would send out calendar alerts when the city has recycling and heavy trash pickup, and another that links residents to Houston Police Department services, such as searching for towed vehicles or combing jail records.

Recently, the group began to hold monthly hackathons featuring a theme. Last week, the hackers focused on transportation issues. “We’re planning a media-hack night in January, sustainability for the next month,” he says. “We have democracy and public health coming up. The goal is to bring it all together at the annual City of Houston Hackathon in May.”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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