12/05/2014 05:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Crowdsourcing Startup Empowers Locals


From left to right: CMO Robert Singleton & CEO Manu Koenig.

Image Credit: Angela Chilcott

Americans are frustrated with the powers that be but that doesn't mean they should ignore the local issues directly affecting them. In Santa Cruz everyday citizens are proposing solutions to the water crisis with the help of crowdsourcing startup Civinomics. How? With an app of course.

Civinomics is part of Santa Cruz's emerging tech scene, and it's mission melds with the county's progressive reputation. Co-founder Robert Singleton describes Civinomics as "crowdsourcing that influences local policy." A survey by Civinomics revealed that Santa Cruz tech commuters would take at least a 9 percent pay cut to avoid commuting. Showing that tech workers would like to remain in Santa Cruz can be one way to get the industry to invest in the county.

Singleton describes the mission of the company as "a civic space for people to have a meaningful discussion about improving the community." He explains that Civinomics "supplements with public research outreach" using iPads running the web-based app. But can iPad surveying help bring about local change? Singleton -- coming from from a "grassroots politics" background at UC Santa Cruz -- thinks its an important part.

CEO Manu Koenig -- a Stanford graduate -- shares the same vision as Singleton for the company. Interestingly he came from a background with affluent advertising firm Martini Media -- which is a long shot from the "grassroots." Eventually Koenig would find his work in advertising "soulless" and realize he wanted to be a full-time entrepreneur. The skills he learned in targeting people he decided to use for a greater good. Santa Cruz was the perfect place to come, after-all it was where he met Singleton.

Koenig used his web design experience to create the app. He describes the app as a way to see what "ideas are hot" in local policy. Koenig believes that the iPad surveying methods of Civinomics are "more statistically accurate" and ideal for showcasing local populism. He points out that telephone-polling data usually samples respondents over fifty. "If you want to do a poll that is going to reach the next generation, the iPad is the way to do it."

Singleton expands that with the iPad "[Civinomics] did a poll on plastic bags and the effect on the ocean -- you can actually demonstrate through a visual interface what happens." Using zoning designation the company builds "one of the most robust samples you can get. Response rates are pretty much one out of two." Using iPads and a web ecosystem, they believe they can deliver valuable social messages.

Singleton went on to say there is less of an "interview bias" when the surveys are conducted in-person rather than over the phone. "For some reason, if there is actually someone there you feel compelled to give the right answer." In other words; its harder lie to an iPad-wielding surveyor's face.

Civinomics' latest client is Santa Cruz's water supply advisory committee. The company is presenting the opportunity for locals to easily submit proposals to address water scarcity (which includes a proposed desalination plant). Good idea, since California is suffering an unprecedented drought and Santa Cruz County needs an additional 900 million gallons of water a year. But what kind of people are throwing out potential solutions?

"Everyone," Singleton explains "the person on the street, your local hydrologist, civil engineers -- even people working for the water department."

Civinomics is another example of tech being used to organize a populist impact. In the words of Koenig: "Human nature wants to do the easiest thing -- we all want to get from point A to point B. With government I am seeing that this equation doesn't change until we have a new technology." Obviously Civinomics aims to be part of that "new technology."


Image Credit: Angela Chilcott

All photos are copyright to Angela Chilcott and used with her permission. View her portfolio here.