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OpenGov Is a Singularly Unsexy Startup That Just Might Make a Difference

"There's no industry that's bigger, more important or more tech-backwards than government."

While city budgets are public information, getting access to them often requires marching into City Hall to make photocopies. And when public accounting does make it online, it’s likely to be in PDF form, with inscrutable pages of stats and charts.

So yes, the numbers might be public, but they’re not incredibly accessible.

OpenGov is a startup that sucks up city CSV files and Excel docs and turns all that data into slick Web charts that anyone can reformat and compare. The intent is for citizens, journalists and cities themselves to track anomalous spending, trends in priorities and comparisons to other cities.

“There’s no industry that’s bigger, more important or more tech-backwards than government,” is how OpenGov CEO Zachary Bookman puts it.

Over the past year, OpenGov has attracted 60 cities to its platform, including Jersey City, N.J.; Anaheim and Riverside, Calif. It charges cities, as well as other government agencies like schools and counties, $2,000 to $30,000 per year.

That’s a fee Bookman characterized as “ludicrously inexpensive,” especially in comparison to comparable custom projects like New York City’s Checkbook NYC 2.0, which cost a reported $2.1 million or more. “And it has canned graphs,” Bookman said of the New York site, as compared to OpenGov’s more open-ended tools.

(Of course, OpenGov is far from the only outfit that’s trying to nudge governments to put more information online; in fact, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit group that advocates for government data transparency, also has a separate and unrelated grant program called OpenGov.)

Bookman carries himself like so many other Silicon Valley founder types, with manic swagger backed by an impressive resume: University of Maryland valedictorian, Harvard and Yale graduate degrees, Fulbright fellowship to study corruption in Mexico, federal law clerk, adviser to NATO’s Afghanistan anti-corruption task force.

But actually, what makes Bookman stand out is that he’s doing something that most of his techie peers would think too boring and pedestrian.

Will OpenGov make a real difference? That’s not clear yet. When asked to come up with examples of where OpenGov has exposed funding disparities or discrepancies that led to some real change or fueled important investigative reporting, Bookman drew a blank, saying it was too early to have those testimonials in the bank.

Bookman’s co-founders at OpenGov include two Stanford engineers and Joe Lonsdale, the repeat entrepreneur and now venture capitalist most famous for helping create the data mining company Palantir.

Lonsdale, who is OpenGov’s chairman, told Re/code he thinks of the company as a monetary opportunity as well as a way to make governments more efficient.

He said: “In particular, over the next couple years I’m excited about how cities can learn from each other’s results and create an internal report card to see where they are strong, and where they can improve or cut back unnecessary spend tied to special interests and reallocate spend to areas that citizens would be more likely to support.”

Lonsdale’s Formation8, along with Thrive Capital, Founders Collective, Founders Fund, Valiant Capital and other investors, has put $7.2 million into OpenGov.

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