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.”