Urban Geek Drinks is dead; long live urban geeks

Dear Urban Geeks-

Over the past 2.5 years, I’ve hosted Urban Geek Drinks. It’s been a blast. When UGD started, there were scant places for folks to gather, brainstorm crazy ideas, socialize, and otherwise scheme. Open Gov Chicago was fairly small, Chicago’s mayor was less than friendly to data transparency efforts, and there were far too few intersections between the civic and technology sectors.

Fortunately, things have changed fairly dramatically over the past two years. Meetups, competitions, hackathons, and new organizations have been popping up. Our new mayor and his tech team (many of whom have been UGD regulars) have pushed an aggressive open gov agenda. There is ample cross-pollination of the civic and tech sectors.

Just as all this was happening, my own work shifted. Since May 2011 I’ve been the founder / CEO of Food Genius; it’s an exciting and crazy adventure, one that consumes all of my time and energy.

For these reasons, I’ve decided to kill Urban Geek Drinks. I feel comfortable with this decision because – frankly – it’s no longer necessary. The urban geeks of Chicago no longer need to scheme over crazy ideas in a seedy South Loop bar. Rather, there are a host of events, organizations, and government agencies that are supporting and lifting up your efforts. What started as schemes have become official plans with financial backing. While I’ve grown away from UGD, the rest of you have outgrown it.

Many, many thanks to all of you who attended the meetups, shared your crazy ideas, bought me whiskey drinks, and otherwise built this amazing community. It always felt strange when people thanked me for hosting – I really didn’t do much other than send out a few emails and coordinate with the bar owners. You did all of the work, created the community, and turned urban geekery in Chicago into what it is today.

To properly send-off UGD, we’ll be gathering one last time at the December Open Gov Chicago meetup / party:

Open Gov Chicago / Urban Geek Drinks Holiday Meetup
Thursday, December 13th
6-9pm
1871 (Merchandise Mart, Suite 1212)
RSVP required (seats are limited): http://www.meetup.com/OpenGovChicago/events/8918094

Urban Geek Drinks is dead. Long live urban geeks!

Cheers,

-justin

the f*cked up part about GoDaddy and SOPA

Like many of you, I’ve been somewhat closely following SOPA (as well as its companion PROTECT IP Act, aka PIPA) and the growing online campaign to block their passage  in recent weeks. It’s been great to see the web quickly mobilize to go after one of our own (using that phrase loosely here) and successfully compel GoDaddy to switch their position.

But, while it pains me to say this, there is one thing that GoDaddy did right.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned since making the leap into the tech startup world, it’s that execution is king. It’s one thing to have a cool idea, it’s quite another to build a company that can bring that idea to life. Ideas are cheap and easy, but executing on the right idea is what creates value. GoDaddy successfully worked the system to carve out an exemption for themselves. Or, put another way, they executed on a strategy to protect their narrow interests (a bad idea) while most everyone else and stood around talking about their opposition to the bills (a good idea).

What’s amazing about GoDaddy is that they seemingly did so w/o spending a ton of cash. Check out their own PAC spending through June 30, 2011 from OpenSecrets.org:

We all have much to learn from GoDaddy – and the boycott that compelled them to switch their position should now push them to reveal precisely what they did in order to obtain their exemption.

Everyone in the tech industry should be doing all that they can to oppose SOPA and PIPA. The big vote is coming up on January 24th, and this is an election year. If you’re an entrepreneur or investor, tell your elected officials that these bills will kill jobs. If you have the financial resources, donate generously to those candidates that oppose these bills and tell others that you would donate if they changed their opinion. If you’re a big company, hire the most aggressive lobbyist you can find and give them the resources to work their black magic.

I’m expecting more than a few folks will disagree with these last two sentences. They’ll cite Larry Lessig, telling me that by tying political donations to specific policy decisions we’re only reinforcing the system that got us into this mess in the first place.  And while I couldn’t agree more, there is a time for idealism and a time for pragmatism. When both the mechanics of the web and the sharing culture of the web are threatened, we need to be pragmatic about our opposition. Make phone calls, write letters, leverage your network, show up to a town hall and – yes – use your financial resources to oppose SOPA/PIPA.

If you’ve got any doubts as to whether money can solve this problem, make sure to read about how SOPA supporters have contributed 4x more to elected officials than the tech industry.

-

My $0.02: The tech industry should have a broad vision in its political advocacy, kill SOPA and PROTECT IP by any means possible right fucking now, and fight for meaningful political reform in the long run. We want to see the system changed, but we also need the modern web to be around to enjoy what a reformed system would afford.

Hell – an emerging, innovative industry having to resort to spending cash to protect itself is a great story for all of the rootstrikers out there.

a new adventure

For more than a decade I’ve been in the non-profit / public sector, working on a variety of issues – anti-racism, fair housing, education, technology, and data analysis. I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing people on some outstanding projects that made a real difference. It has been incredibly rewarding and gratifying work, and I will miss it dearly.

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how technology and data can be used to help people make better decisions. For years, savvy companies have crunched their numbers through expensive and complicated business analytics packages to improve their market position – and, until recently, they were among the only folks who could afford to exploit data in this way. For the average Jane or Joe, using massive amounts of data to make every day decisions was next to impossible. There were barriers of access, technology, connectivity, and ease-of-use.

But things are changing quickly. Very quickly. Just about anyone with basic computer literacy is now able to tap into massive databases to make all sorts of choices, from choosing which car to buy to deciding on the next book to read. As smartphones grow more and more ubiquitous, there is an enormous opportunity to bring the insight and intelligence of data to bear on an incredibly wide array of decisions.

For almost three years (’07-’10) my work focused on MoveSmart.org, a tool to provide housing seekers a way to find neighborhoods of opportunity and diversity. There is a plethora of research addressing how most Americans make poor housing decisions, clouded by ignorance and prejudice. Our goal was simple: expose the data-based realities of neighborhoods, connect people to housing opportunities, and empower anyone to make a smarter move. Reflecting on the experience, we met with moderate success; a few foundations and organizations gave MoveSmart.org small grants, bloggers said nice things about the project, NetSquared selected us a finalist, and more than 7,000 people used the site to explore neighborhoods.

For better or worse, I made the decision early-on that MoveSmart.org would be a non-profit organization. We went through the entire process of incorporating, establishing 501(c)3 status with the IRS, developing a board of directors, applying for foundation and government grants, conducting fundraising campaigns, etc. It was a mountain of work, but the entire team behind the project thought it was a pre-requisite for funding. We’d had a number of preliminary meetings with foundations and HUD officials, folks were excited about the project, and there was a mountain of research to back us up.

After three years of banging our heads against the wall, MoveSmart.org went largely dormant. I was exhausted and had a kid on the way. The Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) had offered me a fulltime job that was almost too good to be true. When I learned that we didn’t receive a large HUD grant because I neglected to explain why I set our travel per diem at $40/day instead of the regular $60/day, it felt like a sign that it was time to move on.

Just a few weeks before we got the news from HUD, I saw a demo of the Food Genome at the amazing NPDev Summit in Oakland. I spent the plane ride home sketching and brainstorming and, a few days later, emailed Eric to start noodling on ideas together.

While each American generation is more mobile than the prior one, most of us will only move a handful of times in our lives. But food is an entirely different story; most Americans eat out more than a few time every week (or for most of their meals, depending on location). Eric and I started wondering what would happen if we could apply the same approach to food that MoveSmart.org took with neighborhoods…

After a few months of tossing ideas back and forth, we came up with the core concept in April 2010. What if we could make individual dish suggestions not based on the social graph or unreliable website reviews, but on their actual ingredients and the user’s tastebuds? Food Genius was born.

Until we started working on our Excelerate Labs application, Food Genius was a hobby. In my wildest dreams, I thought that maybe one day, far in the future, we might get lucky and it could turn into a job. But the Excelerate process compels you to think deeply about your endeavor; a question on the initial application asks who is going to go fulltime and when. With a 10-month old daughter at home and a stable job that I loved, making the leap to becoming an entrepreneur should have been scary as hell. Throw in that I’ve been in the non-profit sector for more than a decade, and some might say I need to have my head examined.

There are still two weeks before we start the program, but I already know that jumping head-first into entrepreneurship through Excelerate Labs is one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Food Genius has been able to marshall more resources and funding in three months than I was able to assemble after nearly three years in the non-profit sector for an analogous project.

It’s time to do more, faster.

 

 

 

transition

At the end of May I’ll be leaving MCIC to work fulltime on Food Genius, a mobile app start-up that links hungry people to specific dishes. It’s a bittersweet transition; I absolutely love my work and colleagues at MCIC, but the opportunity to be a part of the Excelerate Labs 2011 Class is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

For 14 months I’ve had the privilege of working alongside some of the smartest and most effective people I’ve ever met. MCIC is a special place where quality, integrity, and innovation are the norm, and it is uniquely situated to continue being at the center of Chicago’s civic data and information worlds. It is hard to quantify the impact that this experience has had on me, and I’ll miss this work dearly.

If we are working on something together right now, look for an email from me in the next 2 weeks with a status update and an introduction to your new lead contact with MCIC. My schedule is fairly tight these next four weeks, so please understand if I’m slow to respond.

MCIC is also seeking to replace me as Director of Project and Grant Development; a job description is attached to this post.  Please circulate this folks you think might be interested; they should contact MCIC’s Director of Operations, Paul Murtagh, at pmurtagh at mcic dot org to submit a resume and cover letter.

Soon, I’ll have a longer post with my reflections on leaving the non-profit sector for the for-profit world after more than 10 years. This is going to be one hell of an adventure.

Job Description Director of Project & Grant Development (.docx)