Martin O'Malley Mingles With Startup Founders, Makes Pitch To Save His Campaign

The former Maryland governor is aligning himself closely with a growing movement to use technology for civic purposes.

To former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, "civic tech" refers to websites, apps, and social media that "connect caring human beings to one another and the problems that we face as a people." 

In 2015, civic tech focused on social good is a big tent, and it's clearly one that this Democratic presidential candidate would like to be seen under in the minds of the public.

O'Malley shared that perspective with The Huffington Post last night at the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he and a panel of judges heard pitches from civic tech startups focused on a variety of societal challenges.

To give you an idea of the kinds of ideas presented there: The winner of the night's pitch contest was the cleanly designed smartphone app Propel, which impressed the judges with its efforts to make applying for food stamps easier. Propel founder Jimmy Chen told HuffPost that the startup is focused on helping 10 million Americans who qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits but aren't enrolled to get them -- and to make a profit by helping grocery chains tap into the $11 billion dollars in SNAP benefits that go unclaimed. 

After the social entrepreneurs finished their presentations, O'Malley made his own pitch for a startup: his own presidential campaign. Currently polling at 1.1 percent, O'Malley will need both dollars and more support in the polls over the coming months to compete with the formidable Democratic frontrunners, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who are polling at 50.1 percent and 24.2 percent respectively.

His talk, which focused on his record in office and alignment on issues like climate change and student loan debt, was generally well-received at the event, where D.C. politicos in suits and technologists in jeans mixed and mingled enthusiastically. 

This is the second such event the presidential candidate has attended, following a civic tech pitch contest and panel in San Francisco, where O'Malley flirted with tech startups and their founders.

To date, O'Malley's positioning as a data-driven technocrat and progressive record of accomplishment in the Maryland state house have not lit a fire under primary voters. Whether O'Malley's embrace of the growing civic tech movement moves the bar on his candidacy remains to be seen.

A former mayor of Baltimore as well as a governor, O'Malley became nationally known for a more data-driven approach to governing, pioneering programs like CitiStat and StateStat, which tried to make performance measurement part of governance, and opening up more government data, much as the Obama administration has over the past 7 years.

The landscape for civic tech has expanded considerably in recent years, Along with the scrappy nonprofits, open government activists and civic hackers that have built apps and web services over the past two decades, venture-backed startups like OpenGov Inc., Brigade, and NationBuilder are now chasing attention, users and scale.

While many of these startups and their founders are ostensibly focused on social impact, their funders are also going after huge potential profits: Beyond an estimated $6.4 billion dollars in annual spending on services to connect citizens to government and to one another is a much larger $140 billion market for government IT services for state and federal government in the U.S. alone. 

When I caught up with O'Malley after the D.C. forum and asked how he defines the idea of civic tech, O'Malley called it "the use of modern technology for crowdsourced problem solving." 

Here's video of our conversation:

Speaking about his favorite examples of civic tech, O'Malley pointed to the creation of the 911 emergency calling system or cities' 311 numbers for reporting non-emergency issues, from potholes to downed trees.

Today, city 311 systems increasingly feature reports from local residents using smartphone apps like SeeClickFix, complemented by the occasional tweeting pothole.

"It's just a use of the Internet and common platforms to do what we used to do in the old days with sending off an envelope or calling an 800 number," O'Malley went on to describe civic tech. "Now we can do it instantaneously."


When asked about how to ensure that government agencies don't "juke the stats," as David Simon memorably put it in "The Wire," the acclaimed HBO drama that depicted a fictional version of Baltimore grounded in the reality of O'Malley's tenure, the former mayor emphasized the need for governments to audit data and to engage the public in  doing so as well  

"You still have to audit data and make sure that you safeguard the integrity of the data, but the other side is that you have to make sure you have citizens' eyes on that data," he told HuffPost.

"In other words, the very openness itself reduces fraud, waste and abuse because in aggregating that data down to a zipcode level and neighborhood level, you'll be able to spot anomalies," he added.

Here's the part of his address from earlier in the night where he focuses on the potential of young people: