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California: There's an app for that

The state of California will partner with Microsoft, Google and Programmable Web to run an apps contest this summer.

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Can California’s budget-stricken government be improved through citizen engagement and civic developers? If a new application contest that launches this week bears digital fruit, there just might be an app for that.

The state of California will partner with Microsoft, Google and Programmable Web to run an apps contest this summer. “While California is one of the anchor supporters, it wouldn’t be possible without the help of the Center for Digital Government, which brought together the framework for the contest to be held,’ said Adrian Farley, chief deputy CIO for the State of California, speaking in an interview Tuesday morning. “Without their sponsorship, this wouldn’t have happened.

For those keeping score, that means two of the biggest technology companies in the world will be partnering with California to bring its open data to life. And the applications developed to create value from that open government data are likely to run on the iPhone, made by Apple, the company that brought the concept of a platform for applications to unprecedented heights.

Winners will be presented with their prizes at the “Best of the Web” awards in Hollywood in mid-September. The app contest will be coupled with a refreshed Data.CA.gov, which is now in soft launch. Data.CA.gov now 400 major data sources, including XLS, CSV and XML formats. State officials estimate the site conservatively contains over 100 million records.

Government-backed open data contests are now widespread across the United States. The District of Columbia’s Apps for Democracy contest, based on Washington’s data catalog, was followed by Apps for America, which used datasets from data.gov. The Army will announce the winners of its Apps for the Army contest in August. And the World Bank will be stimulating innovation around its new data catalog, data.worldbank.org.

Application contests hold particular appeal for states in rough budget shape. The value of the software created is often worth more than the prize money distributed. Peter Corbett, the founder of iStrategy Labs, recently said Washington, D.C. estimated the value of the software created by the first Apps for Democracy competition to be in excess of $2.2 million. That contest gave out $20,000 in cash prizes.

“We’ve been looking at the idea of doing an application development contest for quite a while,” said Farley. “We wanted to come up with something that would differentiate what we did from other app contests. We looked at our ability to pull together data sources from local government and fed sources, including how multiple data sources could be integrated to create the next level of mashups.”

What might be possible? “There is, for instance, an opportunity to create an interesting mashup around GIS data and data related to environmental protection. That could be used to engage citizens, extending the reach of government by creating a larger enforcement network. With dwindling resources, government doesn’t have the ability to adequately monitor natural resources with personnel. Technology can improve that.”

“A re-occurring theme in IdeaScale was that the state-released data in APIs could be used by the development community,” said Carolyn Lawson, California’s Deputy Director, Technology Services Governance Division, Director of the eServices Office. “We’ll be working with Microsoft’s open government solution and
Google’s Fusion Table to make that a reality. We’ve been converting those data sets with those cloud tools.”

Lawson says that as she’s talked with cities and counties, there’s a great deal of interest throughout the state’s government community in getting involved. “We have commitments from the city of Los Angeles, Los Angeles county, and the city and county of San Francisco now,” she said.

When the California government sought comment from its technology community, one consistent point of feedback was that government was turned inward, Lawson said.
“We need to get competition out of the government space. As a result, we chose to partner with Programmable Web, one of the largest mashup communities online. We’ve been loading links to APIs and data into it already.”

Once the infrastructure is in place, Lawson said her office
will use IdeaScale to ask citizens what kinds of civic apps they want to see developed. “We’re going to try get the conversation going for non-technical constituents,” she said.

Farley pointed to the possibility of applying technology filters to crowdsourcing initiatives. “There’s an interesting effort underway around imagery that scientists are getting back from the moon, where they’re crowdsourcing identification of different geological formats on the moon. Thre may be an opportunity to apply a similar technical tool in California.”

How will procurement or acquisition of applications developed for California work? “We haven’t predefined what will happen afterwards,” said Farley. “Under the contest rules as they’ve been set up, the state does not take ownership. We’ve licensed through the contest the ability to use applications developed. The developer maintains ownership of it. We think that empowers developers in the way other contests haven’t. They can continue to add value something they’ve developed. This will serve as a proving ground for other governments that want to purchase similar applications.”

Farley emphasized that any application developed for the contest must be freely available through mobile apps store and on the open Web. There is room for a so-called “freemium” model thrive, however, as this ecosystem develops. “Despite the fact that a specific app that leverages open data and API that we’re making available, other organizations could pay the developer to improve upon it,” saod Farley. “They could develop a ‘light’ version of the app for free, and then use their technical ability to ‘upsell’ with additional features. A developer can differentiate as much as they want from what they’ve submitted to the app contest.”

Farley pointed out that there are already multiple commercial apps that leverage California state transportation data. “For instance. there are a few apps on iTunes that people can purchase that have transit info, schedules and other transit info that are popular,” he said.

There’s also an emphasis on including government employees in developing applications. “We’re really encouraging state employees, though it may not be their current job function, to use their free time and deep knowledge of the data to apply it to development.

So how big of a deal is it that Google, Microsoft, Programmable Web and the state of California are working together on this contest?

Farley said that the state of California has a strong and deep relationship with the Google and Microsoft. “Both companies have reached out to the state,” said Farley. “We’ve reached our to them to bring innovation to citizen and push the envelope on issues like data center efficiency.

“We have been very fortunate in the partnerships we’ve been able to forge with large technology companies,” said Farley. “Both Google and Microsfoft have shown a commitment to open data. That commitment is what we thought to further through their partnership in this contest. The first partnership that the state did with Google and Microsoft was actually around education data and a Web portal that helps parents to evaluate schools through open data. We see this application contest as extension of that cooperation.”

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  • Andrew Turner

    The “App Contests” are great – they highlight new sources of open data, there is real innovation and excitement.

    However, a key piece that is missing is the step after the contest. How are successful applications procured by the sponsoring organization, or even other organizations? If California has a contest, maybe Nevada can pick up some of the applications. Developers should be incentivized to participate not just because of a small cash prize, but because their applications may become part of the government operations and the developer will be contracted to continue support and development.

    Too often the most innovative applications are awarded, but then copied by the organization or increasingly likely by large integrators (or web properties) that essentially monitor innovation and then reproduce it, leaving the original innovator out of the follow on utilization.

  • Alexander Howard

    Thanks for the comment, Andrew, and for all of your hard work on Crisis Commons. Great points.

  • Larry MacDonald

    I’m pessimistic about this approach. It has several gaping holes and doesn’t match with reality.

    First, if the government is having problems managing itself, how is it going to manage software to help it manage? I do not question the veracity of the individual officials as much as the friction of the process.

    The president created an Open Education Portal for suggestions on improving education. The public can’t read it. Those administering it aren’t allowed to talk to those participating. Comments placed on the site blog are deleted. The software used is a modified platform for another purpose. In other words, it is neither open nor a portal. It is an attempt to look open and participatory.

    Second, asking the public what they want on such a platform is an exercise in futility. It is like asking people what they want invented. They can’t answer because most people can’t see what isn’t there. Soliciting ideas is not an effective approach in this case. If they were soliciting the needs of the citizens, that would be useful. But if they did that, then they would have to address those needs and explain why they are incapable of meeting them. Or, they would have to ask for solutions, which would indicate they are not able to do it themselves. It is not going to happen.

    Third, the government officials are not going to listen any more than corporate officials listen. Furthermore, they have the power to edit and delete and not deliver content to the appropriate entity. There is no accountability and every opportunity for sweeping things under the rug. Take the government pre-911. They had all the info but no connections to make it useful. Absent a 911 event, there is no motivation for the government to make information accessible to those who need it, or to share the issues brought to light with the population.

    What is required is an OPEN forum to reveal problems, solicit and discuss potential solutions, hold officials accountable, and provide useful data to citizens to navigate the corridors of government.

    A more ideal system needs to be:
    * Completely outside the control of government officials
    * Editable by all citizens
    * Cover every aspect of government at every level, including city, county, state and federal
    * Provide citizens a way to call attention to the foibles and bureaucratic maze creating roadblocks to solutions
    * Provide citizens a way to make suggestions and recommendations for ways to improve the functioning of government that is public and creates a record of the issues that are aired.
    * Provides a way for those who work in government to reveal, without fear of retribution, the problems that need solutions
    * Allows discussion and comments on bureaucratic processes to enable the smoother workings of government (hints on how do get things done, similar to forums that discuss software issues)

    Our greatest resource is the wisdom and skills and experience of our citizens, our mind power. In many ways, crowdsourcing can be a valuable adjunct to government. It will get us closer to democracy. The founding fathers did not anticipate the dozens of layers in bureaucracies that hamper the effective carrying out of the functions we hired government to do for us.

    The answer is a shadow government resource platform that takes the form of a Wikipedia, editable by all, with taxonomic classifications of all government agencies and services, each with a commenting capability. A system where citizens could voice their issues and other citizens could provide suggestions for solutions which government officials would have to take into consideration because they would be embarrassed to have a potential solution presented publicly and not pay attention to it and consider it.

    As it is now, citizens write their government officials and make suggestions and they go into a dead file somewhere, never to be shared with others who could contribute to solutions, nor revealing the extent of the danger.

    With 18,000+ cities and 3,000+ counties in the US, it is obvious that they all are sharing many of the same problems. Solutions exist, but are not shared. Or, if they are shared, there is no one watching the local government agencies to make sure they are using the best practices.

    One tiny example of the effectiveness of this approach is a section in the newspaper that posts notices of maintenance issues (pot holes, bathrooms in parks out of order, etc.) along with the official responsible and how long the issue has remained unsolved.

    Expecting government to do what we are more capable of doing is shirking our responsibility and being lazy. Why give government tools that we know they will not make appropriate use of when we, as citizens, could easily do it ourselves in a fashion that supports government officials?

    This approach can lead to infinitely greater accountability, as well as bring the power of national volunteerism to bear on some of our most pressing issues.

    It works for Wikipedia.

    There is a prototype of such a system at http://www.realgov.com which is patiently waiting for an evangelist to lead.

  • sai bpo services

    The “App Contests” are great – they highlight new sources of open data, there is real innovation and excitement.thanks for sharing the post with me.
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