Suddenly there's a buzz at his side. With a sheepish grin, Casnocha reaches into his pocket and fishes out a BlackBerry handheld e-mail device. Immediately his posture stiffens, his tone becomes more professional, and he is no longer the precocious high school student bemoaning the futility of math and science courses -- he's a businessman.
"It's tricky with retired city managers," Casnocha says, reading his e-mail with a gleam in his eye. "They feel uncomfortable trying to make a dime off a buddy, a former colleague, but at the same time they want to stay active."
Typing a quick reply to his correspondent, Casnocha explains, "I have this BlackBerry to keep me connected to the world when I'm in class." He realizes he's said something he shouldn't have, so he offers a self-deprecating chuckle. "Freshman year, I brought it to class. Yes, I did that, and it was wrong of me." He replaces the BlackBerry in his pocket. "This year I'm not going to do it."
Then, grinning, he says, "But when it vibrates, how can you resist?"
Casnocha, after all, is the founder and chairman of Comcate Inc., an e-government company he started in his bedroom that now has more than a dozen clients throughout California, including the cities of Burbank, Menlo Park, and Cupertino. It's not a lark, either: Comcate has a downtown office, a chief operating officer with extensive start-up business experience, and a burgeoning reputation in the e-government industry. Comcate's technology enables cities to receive, process, and organize citizen messages via the Internet, and allows residents to track their queries as they progress through the government. Casnocha's company has been able to carve a niche among the large consulting and software firms competing for e-government contracts by targeting midsize cities, which often have the most need but the fewest resources for electronic citizen-government interfaces.
But for all of Comcate's success, its most notable aspect will likely remain the story of its founder. Though still not old enough to drive, Ben Casnocha is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and in e-government panel discussions, writes a monthly advice column for teen entrepreneurs, and last year popped up on PoliticsOnline's annual list of the 25 people or businesses most likely to change the world of Internet and politics. Casnocha was sixth on the list, behind the BBC, America Online, and Al-Jazeera, and was lauded as a "pioneer in Silicon Valley for sparking the e-government vision for many California governments." Not bad for a kid with marginal HTML skills.
"What's unique about Comcate is that it allows both the government and the citizen to see where their queries lie within the bureaucracy," says Steven Clift, a Minnesota-based expert on e-government who was ranked No. 8 on the PoliticsOnline list. "I've spoken in 24 countries now, and his Menlo Park interface is one of the top examples in my slides. The whole idea of the platform -- a dual-transparent communication system between citizens and government, where both can manage their correspondence -- is very different from writing a letter into the big black hole of Congress and never hearing anything back.
"We need more Bens. I just didn't realize he was 15."
Ben Casnocha's interests in government, technology, and entrepreneurship emerged in sixth grade, when he received a semester-long assignment to build a community service Web site. With the help of a mentor at his private, technology-centric middle school, Casnocha taught himself rudimentary HTML-coding skills -- just in time to see the Web site languish when the semester ended. But Casnocha was suddenly fascinated by the ideas he'd developed at the age of 12, and from the ashes of a defunct sixth-grade project rose a Web site called complainandresolve.com.
Run out of Casnocha's bedroom, complainandresolve.com performed a lofty, if impossible, service. As Ben describes it: "If you didn't know who to contact, you could e-mail us," and Casnocha would then forward the complaint to the appropriate state or local agency.
Anywhere in California.
During the previous summer, Casnocha had compiled what he cheekily called the Book of Authorities, a compendium of contact information for public officials throughout the state. When he received an e-mail from a resident, he dutifully looked up the appropriate agency and made sure the message got through; if he encountered an unresponsive government official -- or one who didn't want to discuss his city's problems with a middle-school student -- Casnocha handed the phone to his father and listened silently on another line. Cities that didn't at least listen to their residents' complaints could earn a negative notice on the site.
After a few months, word of the site -- and Casnocha's admirable efficiency -- began to spread to other Web sites and listservs, and a few local television stations and newspapers carried items about the service. Soon, Casnocha's inbox was being jammed with more than 100 e-mails a day, including missives from the occasional "psycho from Rhode Island," as Ben puts it, who demanded he expand his scope beyond California. But that was impossible: His family members were pitching in to help him handle the heavy flow, but the volume of e-mail quickly outpaced their ability to lead a normal life.