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A venture capitalist's latest fix for California rests in the cloud

After his plan to break up California flopped, Tim Draper takes another stab at changing the state's government, giving $500,000 for counties to use a startup's data visualization tools.

Tim Draper
Venture capitalist Tim Draper believes a startup can change the way Californians interact with their government Jerod Harris, Getty Images for Kairos Soceity

Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who bankrolled an unsuccessful 2014 voter initiative that would have divided California into six separate states, has another idea to fix the state's government.

His next solution comes by way of cloud-based software, not dissolving the largest state.

Draper, who made a fortune betting early on Silicon Valley companies like Skype, Tesla Motors and Hotmail, has argued that California's government is too big to be effective. His Six Californias plan aimed to change that by literally cutting the state's size. But now Draper is hoping that software made by OpenGov -- a startup that not only makes government financial data public but also easy to visualize -- can change the state by providing citizens with a tool that gives them the ability to know how much elected officials are spending and on what.

"It's so powerful. It creates complete transparency," he said during a press conference on Wednesday. "It also allows you to see not just how much has been spent on police but dogs and jackets."

Today, though, you can only do that kind of search in five California counties, out of a total of 58. That's something Draper hopes to change.

Draper's nonprofit, Innovate Your State, began accepting ideas to improve California's government in May as part of its Fix California Challenge. And even though Innovate Your State is still accepting ideas through the end of this month, Draper's organization made its first award today to OpenGov.

So how will a cloud-based software company that helps make sense of, among other things, financial data help California's government?

By offering transparency, says Draper.

After his Six Californias plan failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2014, Draper launched Innovate Your State early this year to fund ballot initiatives and business ideas that, among other goals, are designed to hold political leaders more accountable to their constituents and to get constituents more involved in political decision-making.

OpenGov will help on both counts, says Draper, who argues that information at voters' fingertips spells engagement. "The voters will get more interested, and the counties will get more interested in how they spend their money," he said.

Since its founding in 2012, more than 300 local and state governments across the United States have used OpenGov's platform, which allows officials and constituents to make sense of government finances by creating interactive, user-friendly tables and charts.

Want to see how Fort Lauderdale's spending on police compares with the amount it's splurging on debt payments? Or do you want to know where the police chief is spending the department's money? OpenGov has charts for that. In fact, OpenGov allows anyone to dive into the financial records of the cities, counties and any other government body and do so in a way that doesn't involve spending hours in Excel spreadsheets making the charts on your own.

Five California counties already use OpenGov, and Innovate Your State wants more counties to jump on board. So Draper's nonprofit will use a $500,000 grant it announced today to reimburse California counties purchasing a year-long subscription to OpenGov, giving them a tool they can use to make sense of their own data and, also, share it with the public.

This isn't the first time that OpenGov, which is led by Zac Bookman, has captured the attention of venture capitalists like Draper. The Mountain View, Calif.-based startup has received approximately $22 million in venture capital funding, including from Andreessen Horowitz.

Whether California counties will want to sign up for the service remains to be seen.

Counties in the state decide which data management software programs to use on their own, according to Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the California State Association of Counties, or CSAC.

Though CSAC hasn't officially responded to Draper's offer, Fishman says counties' needs often vary by the size of their populations, which range widely in California. That makes their interest in OpenGov hard to predict.

"L.A. County has more than 10 million people and their budget is over $27 billion. By contrast, Alpine County [has] 1,200 people. Clearly, their needs are very different," said Fishman. "I'm still not sure how counties will react to this."

Draper's nonprofit will still accept submissions as part of its challenge until June 30. It's already received more than 300 submissions, according to a spokesman for the group. They're not saying, though, how much they plan on pledging.

More than 40 percent of the ideas submitted so far focus on improving representation and the legislative process. Almost 20 percent address infrastructure and water conservation. And another 10 percent are focused on fixing education in the state.

Within the next two weeks, Innovate Your State says it will announce other winners of its first-ever Fix California Challenge.

So is another ballot initiative on the way? For now, Draper's nonprofit isn't saying.