Before CityGrows was created, CEO and founder Stephen Corwin just wanted a better understanding of the real estate market in his Los Angeles neighborhood.
“I created what was an early version of CityGrows out of my interest in data accessibility,” Corwin said in an interview with 21st Century State & Local. “I wanted to engage what was being built in my neighborhood and be a part of that conversation.”
CityGrows is a cloud-based workflow and transparency platform for local governments. With a focus on helping governments transition from paper-based processes to a digital platform, CityGrows improves the experience of interacting with public services for constituents and government employees, while also increasing public access to information about how government works.
CityGrows also offers one unique and appealing feature for cash-strapped local governments–it can be entirely free for governments. CityGrows makes its money in two possible ways. First, if governments don’t want to make the data they collect publicly available, they can pay a monthly fee to keep their data private. Second, CityGrows charges a credit card processing fee for any processes that involve payment. However, as long as governments keep their data transparent and pass along the processing fee to residents, the service is free to use.
Corwin explained that most cities use the publicly available process because residents want access to the data.
Since the service is free for cities to try, it’s especially appealing to small governments, explained COO Catherine Geanuracos, in an interview.
“The small cities are where we can provide the most value the quickest,” she said. “They have the smallest budgets but have constituents that expect great services.”
Corwin explained that most cities like that the data is public and don’t pay extra to keep it private.
“Cities are using us specifically because residents want access to the data,” Corwin said. “The model should be transparent by default. You should have to choose to make things not transparent and there should be a specific reason behind that decision.”
CityGrows can be used for nearly any government process–from dog licenses to supply procurement. The company also stresses that any government employee, regardless of technical skill, can automate a process on their platform.
“There are pieces of software out there that you can use in targeted verticals. We wanted to take the approach where the platform is use-case agnostic,” Corwin said. “We wanted to make it so any time there is a service or process a government wants to offer its citizens, it’s not more than a 10-minute process to make that a reality.”
Launched in 2016, CityGrows is still in its early acquisition phase. However, it has seen success with local governments in California–where the company is headquartered–and is expanding to 15 to 20 additional cities in the near future.
“It’s a good opportunity for a smaller city that might not get a lot of attention from a tech company to start working with us,” said Geanuracos. “The more collaboration we have with our users the more we can update and expand our platform.”
Even when keeping their data publicly available, cities can still opt to keep specific questions private. CityGrows uses a simple check-box interface, so when designing the process, a city just has to check a box to not display the information publicly. Corwin argues that keeping data publicly available is not only beneficial to citizens, but the government itself.
“Even when governments have open data, it’s time consuming to take that data and create something that tells a story with it. Because we know what type of data we are collecting, we can easily tell a story,” Corwin explained.
“We are building a tool to help people inside of government be more iterative, innovative, and nimble in how they provide digital services,” Geanuracos said.
Corwin draws a distinction between digital service products of the past and CityGrows.
“We’re exiting a world where experimentation is risky. For the last 15 years, especially in government, it was the type of thing where if you made the wrong commitment, you lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and made your boss angry. That’s not an environment that promotes innovation. If you’re curious if there might be a better way, there’s absolutely no risk in trying,” said Corwin.
In terms of CityGrows’ future, Geanuracos compares it to GitHub.
“Our whole company is inspired by GitHub. One of the things that happened with GitHub is that there is enough of a community that people are uploading, sharing, and improving on each other’s code. Our goal is to be that kind of platform for government processes,” Geanuracos said.
Corwin also stressed the idea of collaboration and having governments build on each other’s work.
“My vision was to create an ecosystem to let people stop duplicating efforts across government,” Corwin said. “There are small governments across the country that don’t have the bandwidth to be the first to adopt a new technology, we wanted to create an ecosystem that makes that second level adoption much easier. We don’t need 45,000 ways to license a dog; ultimately there’s going to be one best way to do it.”