During his presentation today at the Web 2.0 conference, Six Apart cofounder Anil Dash showed a before-they-were-famous photo that included the founders of Twitter, Flickr, and other well-known startups. They've learned plenty of lessons as Web 2.0 companies, he said. "What if we could bring these lessons to bear in service of our country?"
To that end, Dash has established a new non-profit, nonpartisan incubator named Expert Labs that will launch a series of experiments with the goal of bridging government policy and technology. The incubator will give grants to tech gurus to develop applications and tools that benefit both the government and citizens (similar to city-wide open data programs like New York's Big Apps contest, but on a national basis). Dash left blog tool pioneer Six Apart and took the job as head of the D.C.-based Expert Labs in October, and the New York Observer was the first to release details of the new organization earlier today.
The name Expert Labs comes from the idea of cloud computing or "crowd expertise." Dash referenced a blog post he wrote last summer, "The Most Interesting New Tech Startup of 2009," about how the government was the most exciting place for the "crowd experts" of the tech community to make a difference. "How can we connect experts that we already know and have them work on something really meaningful?" he asked.
Expert Labs is funded with a $500,000 grant from the "genius"-denoting MacArthur Foundation as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Although it cites similar collaborative efforts like Code For America and the Knight News Challenge (and even Craig Newmark) as inspiration, unlike many of those efforts, which are non-profit or foundation-based, Expert Labs' focus is more entrepreneurial than political, said Dash. According to its Web site:
We will be focused on documenting what we've learned in creating our new tools and technologies
We see our work as experiments, and that means we can try new approaches that might be seen as too risky or ambitious for the standards of projects within the government.
Our work will be distributed as cloud applications, using new platforms like the Apps.gov app store for Federal employees. This advantage in making our work available removes a lot of the barriers to technology adoption.
Tapping Dash to lead Expert Labs not only brings his elite circle of Silicon Valley collaborators face-to-face with politicos, it provides a direct conduit to policy-making for smart start-ups (and even bigger tech companies) who want to help the government, but don't know how.