MISSION, RGV – Alberto ‘Beto” Altamirano, a Sharyland native and co-founder of Cityflag, has provided the Rio Grande Guardian with more information about how the two-year-old tech startup got off the ground.
Three of its angel investors are from the Rio Grande Valley. The Valley is not known for having angel investors helping tech startups.
“Three of our angel investors are from the Rio Grande Valley, and that’s powerful because it means that investors in the Valley are proactive and looking at technology deals, which is outside of the norm for Valley investors,” Altamirano said.
“Rafael Munguia is our lead investor, he is a a developer and entrepreneur from the Rio Grande Valley. Erick Saldaña is an architect that operates in Monterrey, Mexico, but attended Sharyland High School and lived in Mission, Texas, before moving to Monterrey. Eduardo Guajardo is from Brownsville, Texas, and currently works at Merrill Lynch in San Antonio.”
Here is the Rio Grande Guardian’s original story on Cityflag and Altamirano’s connections with Mission Economic Development Corporation and its Center for Education and Economic Development:
Sharyland native helps launch innovative civic engagement app
MISSION, RGV – Alberto ‘Beto” Altamirano, a Sharyland native and co-founder of Cityflag, a civic engagement app, was recently on a tour of Europe to promote the concept of smart cities.
In Paris, he participated in a conference with mayors from all over world who spoke about the big plans they have to make their municipalities smart cities. When asked where he came from, Altamirano would say, the Rio Grande Valley, the most southerly tip of Texas. Obviously, hardly anyone from outside of the United States had heard of it.
However, the mayors and their assistants were intrigued by Altamirano’s answers when asked what technology and innovation initiatives his community was implementing. Altamirano was about to start a three-month gig as Mission Economic Development Corporation’s “Expert in Residence” at its Center for Education & Economic Development. So, he spoke about that.
“They would ask how are you building more resilient cities through innovation?” Altamirano recalled. “I could talk about a lot of things that are happening here, but I started talking about Mission EDC and about the CEED building. I captivated them with my response. A lot of the folks did not have a CEED-type project. The secretary to the mayor of Amsterdam, or the official from Ecuador, etc., they were asking me, what is that. I said, well, imagine a building where you have everything, like a little city, where you have even a brewery, a coffee shop, an expert in residence, companies that develop technology, where you have a technology academy, everything in one building. They were captivated.”
Altamirano said they would then ask, what is the purpose of the CEED building. “I told them, to build a community.”
In a wide-ranging interview, the Rio Grande Guardian asked Altamirano how he became a tech star, about Cityflag, civic engagement among Latinos, increasing voter turnout and his work with Mission EDC. First up was the Cityflag, of which Altamirano is founder and CEO.
“Cityflag is a technology company that connects people and government,” Altamirano explained. “When I was organizing on the east side of Austin I saw a missing gap. People wanted to notify their government or connect with their government, but it was difficult. How do we bring down those walls of bureaucracy? That is when I got together with a professor in communications and developed Cityflag.”
Cityflag is said to be the first social network for 311 services. “In less than 45 seconds you can notify your government on, let’s say, a pothole, graffiti, vandalism, power outages. You name it. That is the bread and butter of the company, the 3-1-1 app,” Altamirano said.
Additionally, however, Cityflag has developed software for the backend of the operation that allows a governmental entity to see everything that is happening in real time in a neighborhood.
“Every report the resident sends, the government receives. The government can then notify the resident they are tracking the report. Then we developed Cityflag Connect, which is a communication channel from the government to the citizen, for opportunities to do with education, culture, tourism, you name it. It is a center of information in the palm of your hands.”
On top of this, Cityflag has ventured into the commercial side. “Now we have Fixes, which is an application that connects tenants and property managers. So, that is what Cityflag represents. It is an array of products that focus on connecting people,” Altamirano said.
Cityflag has only been in operation for two years. “We are a product of a MacArthur Foundation grant. We won the Voto Latino Innovator Challenge, a national competition where we competed with hundreds of start-ups. Five start-ups were selected to receive this grant. This grant was an initiative by the MacArthur Foundation to focus on diversity in technology,” Altamirano explained.
Altamirano said that as a Latino-owned company, he and his partners are proud to be “spearheading the conversation” when it comes to tech and, more specifically, minorities in tech.
“We are very excited about what we are doing. We have been around for about two years and we currently have three clients. We have the City of San Antonio, which services 1.5 million people. We have Mexico City, specifically Delegacion Cuahutemoc, which is one of the most popular and trendy sections of the city, very cosmopolitan. It has a floating population of about five million people. And now we are working with Mission, Texas, with this Expert in Residence program to try to nurture an eco-system that has to do with civic tech and innovation here in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Altamirano is a Valley native “loud and proud.” He graduated from Sharyland High School in 2008 and adores the region’s culture.
“When I tell people about my upbringing I tell them I grew up in a bi-cultural setting, getting to experience and enjoy the richness and culture of Mexico, and the United States, with its independent, do it yourself, attitude to succeed. It is very motivating, merged into one dish. It was delicious, it was great, it was amazing, it was beautiful. That is what I tell people because that is what the RGV represents.”
While at high school Altamirano led a magazine called Pulp & Soda, which celebrated contemporary Hispanic art. “It was my first entrepreneurial venture, I was 17 or 18 years old. It was a lot of fun,” he said. From there, Altamirano ventured into running political campaigns, organizing communities, and to talking to folks. He then got an opportunity to work at the Texas Capital.
“It was a great experience. From there I had the opportunity to work in the U.S. Senate, working for John Kerry in 2012, just before he transitioned to become secretary of state. I really enjoyed that process. But, more than anything, I got to see how hungry people were to connect with their government. And, I saw the rise of social media and how it was being utilized to connect with folks in government, elected officials, political campaigns, political organizations, you name it. It was the rise of how social media got involved in politics, in policy.”
Perhaps surprising for the leader of a tech startup, Altamirano did not study engineering or computers at college.
“I’m a political science major, so the odds of me being in tech were stacked against me. I started at UT-Pan American before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin, which was a great opportunity for me. I did not learn about the tech world or engineering in college. But what I did learn is that the government needed to innovate.”
The reason the government needs to innovate, Altamirano believes, is that it is reactive, not proactive.
“When we look at the Internet, it gave us the ability to create content and now it is giving us the opportunity to create influence. Do we have to be responsible with how we utilize social media? Yes, we have seen it with the last election. But, at the same time I think we are on to something,” Altamirano said.
“Government has become more transparent because people can alert the government on certain things or they can alert certain things in their neighborhood, so that the government can react faster. The use of Twitter is immediate.
“So, no, I did not learn the tech side of things in college, but I experienced the rise of social media and the digital tools while in government, during the service in the Senate and the White House in 2012 and 2013.”
After a few years in Washington, Altamirano moved back to Austin and started organizing communities again, political organizing. “That is when I finally got the idea of why, how come there are no tools utilizing social media platforms where you can connect with your government. And Cityflag was created.”
As for the 311-interface idea Altamirano said the idea came to him while in Barcelona.
“I had the opportunity to live in Barcelona and I saw the rise of ‘smart cities.’ When we talk about smart cities we are talking about how cities can become more responsive. To utilize technology in such a way that we can provide better services to our constituents, to the people.”
That technology has to be “people-centric,” Altamirano said. He noted that in the last few years is there has been a lot of government technology that is not people-centric.
“Cityflag is a people-centric approach, a people-centric initiative, that focuses on a unique user experience. And how the application evolves as you are using it, in such a way that is easy to use, that is seamless. What sets us apart from our competition, and there is competition with our 311 app, is that we are the first social network for 311 services,” Altamirano said.
“Meaning, the moment you make a report, you can share it on the urban feed, and people can vote on it and other people can comment on it. You can have a map, a virtual reference of all the flags that are in your neighborhood. You can click on the flag and it will take you to the user who flagged it. So, you start adding people as well.”
In essence, Altamirano said, his company’s technology is taking what Instagram is, or Facebook is, and connecting it to a generic 311 application.
“And that is when you start creating magic, when you start becoming more people-centric and not government-centric. That is the goal. If we want to have people engaging with government then we have to build tools for people not for government. On the back end, yes, you have your software, on the receiving end of the application report. But when you focus on people you are going to have something more engaging and more fun and people will start using it.”
Altamirano gave an example of how Cityflag 311 works. “You are walking down the street and you see that same pothole that has been there for two months. You want to let your government know but you do not know how to do it. You take out your phone and you take a picture of it and you send that information directly to your city government. It has a ticket number, so you can follow up and the government will follow up with you.”
Altamirano also spoke about Cityflag Connect, which is a government information application. He gave an example of how it can be used.
“Say you are new to a city and you do not know what kind of services the city offers. Let’s say you are looking for a community engagement opportunity, that you are looking for a book fair and you don’t know where to look. You want to take your kids to that book fair. Cityflag Connect allows people to understand what is happening real time, what is happening in their city. People can start voting or commenting on it. So, essentially, both products, Cityflag Connect and Cityflag 311 are about connecting folks.”
Altamirano acknowledged that another brand, Nextdoor, is a huge application, utilized all over the U.S. However, he said his company’s product is different.
“Nextdoor it is a billion-dollar company, but they do not have accountability with the government. I believe we should build community. How do we do that? We do that by government being responsive to the issues people are commenting on, that people are reporting on. That is what truly builds community, when you have government being accountable, being involved in the process.”
Altamirano was asked if improving voter turnout is one of Cityflag’s goals, given that its technology helps bring citizens closer to their government.
“How do you substitute standing in line with clicking online? It is about the entire government innovating itself. We are going to play a small part. We feel we are pioneering that in different sectors. Our competition is too. They have done great work in pioneering the concept of getting more people involved, civically,” Altamirano said.
“But, it takes more than that. I am a scholar at the Aspen Institute and I work closely with the Latinos in Society program, focusing on Latino political millennial engagement. It is a challenge. How do you take this online noise, this hashtivism, that is what people call it, you say three or four comments and then that is it? But, you don’t go vote, you don’t go to a rally, you do not participate in organizations.
“I understand there is a lack of time. Whenever you have free time you want to do your own thing. And that is perfectly fine. That is okay. But how do we get people more involved in the process, in the civic life? I think it starts with small things. Like having some type of tool, some part of the process. I think Cityflag represents that.
“I think when people have a tool where they can impact, or they feel their voice is being heard, then you start motivating people. That is something we introduce in the application, which is a gamification layer, the more you participate, the more points you get. You start as a volunteer and you end up as a community representative. This type of incentive, of gamification, on a social media platform, really helps this ecosystem where ultimately, who knows? Maybe we will build a more healthy, civic, life in our cities.”
The Challenge of the Rio Grande Valley
One of the most challenging places to introduce Cityflag, a civic engagement app, would be the Rio Grande Valley, given its demographic profile.
Spanish is the preferred language of many of its residents and a high percentage live in or near poverty. According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the digital divide is as wide in the Valley as any place in the country.
Altamirano acknowledged that the digital divide, and language barriers, make the Valley a challenging area for his company to operate in.
“When you talk about the digital divide, it is a challenge that we face here in the Rio Grande Valley. It is a challenge that we face all over the U.S. How do we bridge the digital divide?” Altamirano said.
“I think we need civic leaders to be forward-thinking when it comes to the policies they are enacting. It is not up to us, we are a private company, to try to innovate that. I think it is something the government needs to get involved with.”
What Cityflag can do, Altamirano said, is provide an outlet, an opportunity for residents to connect with their government.
“When you talk about how governments get involved to minimize the digital divide, there are many initiatives, provide more Wi-Fi, providing camps for tech education, there are so many things the government can get involved with.”
Altamirano is optimistic.
“We are beginning to see a lot of civil leaders understand the power of economic development behind getting people educated on the subject matter of technology. What people are doing here with Mission EDC and CEED, with Alex Meade, for example, they have identified that there is a challenge in the community. We need to get people more motivated to get into the technology sector, to learn about the technology sector, and to ultimately start companies.”
Is that realistic, Altamirano is asked. “Why not? I think we have the potential and the people to do it here in the Rio Grande Valley,” he responds.
A reporter challenges the point that economic development corporations across the Valley – with the notable exception of Mission EDC – understand that shrinking the digital divide is an economic development issue.
Altamirano responded: ‘I think the Rio Grande Valley has the potential to be a leader. When we talk about entrepreneurship and education, people in the Rio Grande Valley by nature are entrepreneurial. When we look at the economic point of view of Latinos and small businesses, Latinos are leading by numbers, the small business initiative nationwide, that is representative of what is happening here in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Now, let’s add the component of technology and innovation, and you have magic, and that is what we need to achieve. Civic leaders in the Valley need to do more about it. I think they are beginning to do it. I am very hopeful and optimistic about the leadership here in the Rio Grande Valley because I have seen it.”
Altamirano said he knows many leaders in the Rio Grande Valley who are spearheading initiatives that have to do with innovation.
“But, it also takes time and consistency and projects that are successful. But I think more than anything it is about building a tech entrepreneurial community. I think it starts with education. I think if we can also have universities rally around the idea that we need to nurture an eco-system that promotes entrepreneurship, and innovation, then we have success. We need to connect the dots. The government, the private sector, and academia.”
The fact that Cityflag has a presence in Mexico City suggests the company can create its various products in Spanish. Asked if his company could develop applications in English and Spanish for the Rio Grande Valley, Altamirano said:
“Of course. I am fully bilingual. There is an opportunity for us to offer the product in Spanish. We know that Spanish is a language that is spoken at home. Why not take up that advantage, that opportunity to promote a Spanish version of the application here in the Rio Grande Valley? I think that is what we want to do.”
A reporter pointed out that if helping the Rio Grande Valley posed a challenge, the need for an operation like Cityflag is even more pronounced just across the border in Reynosa. There, the city government does not have single-member districts, so it is hard for residents to reach the person who is ultimately responsible for improving conditions in their colonia. A reporter gave an example of the lack of street paving, the poor trash collection system, and even getting the local council to cut the grass in a neighborhood park.
Altamirano responded: “Our goal in Mexico is to implement the software, the backend. We start with that. So, whenever anyone is calling, instead of emailing about a certain request or report, people are going to be able to delegate internally through the software, where the request is going to go the right department. We have all that set up. That is what we expect to sell first in Mexico. We start with that. We build the groundwork for that and later introduce an application in Mexico. That is the goal.”
An Expert in Residence
So, for three months, Altamirano is an expert in residence at the CEED building in Mission. Asked how that came about and why he took the gig, Altamirano said:
“It is not just me, it is the entire Cityflag team. We are here for three months. We hope to connect with the community, to educate the community on what civic technology is. Educate the community on what start-up ecosystems can do for a community. How it can promote a lot of economic development.”
More than anything, however, Cityflag hopes to build knowledge on startups, on technology, on innovation, and hopefully on the potential that is possible if the Rio Grande Valley develops smart cities.
“We hope that we can connect with leaders around the community that want to talk about smart cities, that want to talk about innovation. I write about smart cities, I write for the World Economic Forum on this subject matter and I think I can transfer that information to folks down here because I am passionate about what is happening here in the RGV.”
Altamirano reiterated that he is proud to be from the Valley but pointed out that he is not the only member of Cityflag with that connection.
“One of our other founders, Dr. Beto Gomez, graduated from UT-Pan American. He wants to have a workshop on design thinking, about how to take your idea, that abstract idea that you have about a company, and then put it on paper and actually push it forward into a product and actually do something about it.”
Altamirano also has innovative ideas he wants to implement during his stay in Mission.
“I want to have a workshop about story-telling, about leading change, about how every entrepreneur has a great story to share. That story really motivates your team. It is about promoting that culture internally that will help your start-up ultimately grow and succeed,” he said.
“And then we hope to have some type of panel towards the end of our initiative in Mission where we can host some type of innovation summit, where we can have folks from all over the state come down to the Rio Grande Valley and talk about different innovations and the tech sector and the sport sector, and any kind of initiative that innovation really helps.”
Another possibility, Altamirano said, is to see whether Cityflag can help the City of Mission innovate its processes. “Our goal is to really dive into the community, a community I love, a community I respect, and submerge myself in the culture and see how we can help, more than anything.”
Asked how he was recruited to be Mission EDC’s expert in residence at the CEED building, Altamirano said:
“The way I got recruited was through a meeting with Alex Meade. He followed my work online. We met in person and he asked me if I had any plans to come back to the Valley to give back, to promote civic technology and smart city innovation. I said, yes, let’s do it. So, we had a brief interview where we talked about a division of Cityflag, and then I was offered this expert in residence program. We were delighted. The entire team was delighted. You will see the co-founders here, there are three of us. We will be here for three months and we are very excited to be part of this initiative.”