App outreach and sustainability: lessons learned by Portland, Oregon

Having decided to hang around Portland for a couple days after the Open Source convention, I attended a hackathon sponsored by the City of Portland and a number of local high tech companies, and talked to Rick Nixon (program manager for technology initiatives in the Portland city government) about the two big problems faced by contests and challenges in government apps: encouraging developers to turn their cool apps into sustainable products, and getting the public to use them.

It’s now widely recognized that most of the apps produced by government challenges are quickly abandoned. None of the apps that won awards at the original government challenge–Vivek Kundra’s celebrated Apps for Democracy contest in Washington, DC–still exist.

Correction: Alex Howard tells me one of the Apps for Democracy
winners is still in use, and points out that other cities have found
strategies for sustainability.

And how could one expect a developer to put in the time to maintain an app, much less turn it into a robust, broadly useful tool for the general public? Productizing software requires a major investment. User interface design is a skill all its own, databases have to be maintained, APIs require documentation that nobody enjoys writing, and so forth. (Customer service is yet another burden–one that Nixon finds himself taking on for apps developed by private individuals for the city of Portland.) Developers quit their day jobs when they decide to pursue interesting products. The payoff for something in the public sphere just isn’t there.

If a government’s goal is just to let the commercial world know that a data set is available, a challenge may be just the thing to do, even if no direct long-term applications emerge. But as Nixon pointed out, award ceremonies create a very short blip in the public attention. Governments and private foundations may soon decide that the money sunk into challenges and awards is money wasted–especially as the number of challenges proliferate, as I’ve seen them do in the field of health.

Because traditional incentives can never bulk up enough muscle to make it worthwhile for a developer to productize a government app, the governments can try taking the exact opposite approach and require any winning app to be open source. That’s what Portland’s CivicApps does. Nixon says they also require a winning developer to offer the app online for at least a year after the contest. This gives the app time to gain some traction.

Because nearly any app that’s useful to one government is useful to many, open source should make support a trivial problem. For instance, take Portland’s city council agenda API, which lets programmers issue queries like “show me the votes on item 506” or “what was the disposition of item 95?” On the front end, a city developer named Oscar Godson created a nice wizard, with features such as prepopulated fields and picklists, that lets staff quickly create agendas. The data format for storing agendas is JSON and the API is so simple that I started retrieving fields in 5 minutes of Ruby coding. And at the session introducing the API, several people suggested enhancements. (I suggested a diff facility and a search facility, and someone else suggested that session times be coded in standard formats so that people could plan when to arrive.) Why couldn’t hundreds of governments chip in to support such a project?

Code for America, a public service organization for programmers supported by O’Reilly and many other institutions, combines a variety of strategies. All projects are open source, but developers are hooked up with projects for a long enough period to achieve real development milestones. But there may still be a role for the macho theatrics of a one-day hackathon or short-term challenge.

Enhancing the platform available to developers can also stimulate more apps. Nixon pointed out that, when Portland first released geographic data in the form of Shapefiles, a local developer created a site to serve them up more easily via an API, mobilizing others to create more apps. He is now part of the Code For America effort doing exactly the same thing–serving up geographic data–for other large municipalities.

Public acceptance is the other big problem. A few apps hit the big time, notably the Portland PDX bus app that tells you how soon a bus is coming so you can minimize the time you wait out in the rain. But most remain unknown and unappreciated. Nixon and I saw no way forward here, except perhaps that one must lead the way with increasing public involvement in government, and that this involvement will result in an increased use of software that facilitates it.

The wealth of simple APIs made a lot of people productive today. The applications presented at the end of the Portland hackathon were:

  • A mapping program that shows how much one’s friends know each other, clustering people together who know each other well

  • An information retrieval program that organizes movies to help you find one to watch

  • A natural language processing application that finds and displays activities related to a particular location

  • An event planner that lets you combine the users of many different social networks, as well as email and text messaging users (grand prize winner)

  • A JSON parser written in Lua communicating with a GTK user interface written in Scheme (just for the exercise)

  • A popularity sorter for the city council agenda, basing popularity on the number of comments posted

  • A JavaScript implementation of LinkedIn Circles

  • A geographic display of local institutions matching a search string, using the Twilio API

  • A visualization of votes among city council members

  • An aggregator for likes and comments on Facebook and (eventually) other sites

  • A resume generator using LinkedIn data

  • A tool for generating consistent location names for different parts of the world that call things by different terms

Approximately 130 man-and-woman hours went into today’s achievements. A project like Code for America multiplies that by hundreds.

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  • “It’s now widely recognized that most of the apps produced by government challenges are quickly abandoned.”

    I think you’ll find that most short-term software development challenges (whether civic focused or not) do not have long-term sustainability records that are all that great, so focusing just on civic apps contests doesn’t show the whole picture.

    How many weekend entrepreneurial contests entries make it in the long run? Why are “civic entrepreneurial” contests judged differently?

    Having just closed down a civic app project I started over a year ago (, this issue is particularly acute for me.

    Even if government app contests don’t generate many long-term “winners” they still provide enormous value by showing governments what is possible to do with their data, and stretch traditional notions of how service should be delivered.

    I agree strongly that requiring contests entries to be open source will provide residual value that other developers can leverage, making civic app development easier for all.

    Another outcome of these contests that is often missed, and the benefit of which is hard to quantify, is the open data sets that they produce. Some of the data that has been generated, cleaned up and formatted to support an entry in a government app contest can outlive the app it was meant to support.

    If government app contests can throw off clean, usable data sets in addition to new applications, the job for the next civic app developer is made easier as well.

    I think that’s a pretty valuable outcome.

  • Andy, I’m curious about something: Who uses these apps? That’s what I think of when I see the word “outreach”.

  • Andy,

    Thank you for sharing this report on the latest Civic Apps hackathon. Portland is fortunate to have a dynamic open source community, an online platform for open data, real-time APIs and, of course, a lovely climate with plenty of developers with wonderfully ironic fascial hair. I’m glad to was able to be reminded of all of that during my most recent trip to OSCON.

    Your points about the utility of making civic apps open source are important and would likely be congruent with the work that CivicCommons and Code for America are doing.

    That said, there are a couple of additional elements to consider regarding open data apps contests and government challenges.

    You already added that correction from my quarter regarding apps from Apps for Democracy still being around. Here’s the specific example: as Peter Corbett shared, Park it DC and Are You Safe DC are still up:

    Are You Safe is now available in 10 other cities:

    Mark Headd has already highlighted another perspective regarding the utility of apps contests to clean up data and engage community.

    If you look at the hackathon this weekend on

    or Friday’s hackathon on data, those two goals come through.

    With respect to developers stepping up to use open data and finding “payoff in the public sphere,” I’d direct readers to this list of entrepreneurs, which including a winner from the Apps for California app contest, Zonability:

    In terms of sustainable outcomes, consider also that the winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup. $5M in funding isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) but it’s a data point.

    Your larger contention about the effectiveness of government challenges is up for debate. DARPA and NASA have both had success crowdsourcing design or methodologies. We’ll see if efforts like HHS’s Health 2.0 challenge continue to bear fruit, like the apps you reported on from the CHDI challenge in June.

    One final point: one of the winners of the second Apps for America contests is The three men behind the app, which provided a better way to browse the open data behind the Federal Register, subsequently worked with government to redesign and relaunch using open source and open standards.

    That outcome, available to all citizens to see and build upon, if they wish to use the code or data, is an important case study for open government in 2010.

  • For reference: I’m the local developer mentioned in the article and my PDX data project is called

  • I wished I could incorporate the city council API into my geolocation aggregation hack (, bullet point 3) Saturday, but I want the scope of my app to be at least national.

    I’d love to see a centralized API unite local civic data into something you can incorporate into a single app without tracking down and adding info city by city. SimpleGeo, one of the sponsors of the hack day, seems well-positioned to take that on.

  • Outreach up front to generate ideas from the public ahead of time is something to consider.

    Whether that is promoting “build it for me” idea submissions with the local newspaper or simply joining and going to local neighborhood groups online (e-lists, Facebook pages, e-lists) and asking the public what government info/service scratch needs to be itched. You can connect with host of such local online communities here:

    On that note I have almost 800 of my neighbors or 20% of households in my neighborhood gathered on a network – – come on in and ask us what we need sometime. :-)

  • Andy,

    The following may be of interest for sustainability.

    It’s a “meta-app” platform on the Web that’s intended to support people socially writing and extending their own apps, by typing executable English knowledge into browsers.

    For example, here’s the “source code” of an app written in executable English:

    Anyone on the web can view and run the app by pointing a browser to the site. They can also edit the app, Wikipedia style (but without those
    severe human editors). And of course, you can also write and run new apps.

    Since the apps are written in English, they are findable via Google. For example, searching Google for

    imported oil energy some-source

    finds the app mentioned above.

    Apologies to folks who have seen this before, and thanks for comments.
    — Adrian

    Internet Business Logic
    A Wiki and SOA Endpoint for Executable Open Vocabulary English Q/A
    Online at
    Shared use is free, and there are no advertisements

  • (I was one of the organizers this past weekend, so feel free to consider me biased.)

    While the contest ideas are great, I think they suffer from the same problem that many Open Source projects suffer.. being spread too thin. The most likely people who participate in these contests are the people who are leaders in their company, community, projects, etc.

    Therefore, they’re already heavily committed in other areas, so this becomes yet another commitment which they have to choose between.

    And – as I noted to Andy on Saturday – I think the lack of sustainability goes both ways. Generally government agencies are incredibly risk adverse and putting out this data is new to them. If it doesn’t have the results that they want or envision, their drive to keep the data updated and available diminishes.

    Once the data is out of date, people stop using it out of necessity. I saw the same with the different “Apps for X” while I was in DC.

    That said, I think we should applaud the groups – like Portland – that make the information available and keep it up to date.

  • A follow up to my previous comment, and also dovetailing with Max Ogden’s comment about his work on PDXAPI.

    The basic framework for that has now been replicated in several other cities including Baltimore and Philadelphia, forming the basis for civic apps in those communities (many of which were developed outside of app contests).

    Don’t undervalue the benefit of having clean, usable data as a product of civic hackathons.

    Its the fuel on which many a civic app can run.

  • I posted some comments in relation to contests here that may be worth your time and attention:

  • Most of the contests and challenges popularized by this (hopefully dying) fad have totally missed the point.. it should never be about the winning prize or the number of “apps” made. It should be about developing a community around the effort if you think “sustainability” even remotely possible.

    A contest is just the “juice” to spark the collaboration. The problem is these competitions is that those that put them on have been sold on false idea that web development in this manner is inexpensive. Far from it. If you want quality results, you have to manage the community and help them help each other over time.

    That starts with the way the platform itself is designed to encourage connecting participants with each other. If you’re asking for people to submit a paragraph blurb and getting your friends to vote it up.. I’m think of Ecomagination’s first attempts at this with the ridiculous $100 million dollars in prizes, you’re hardly doing anything other blowing cash. However, if you a create a platform like Africa Rural Connect, where people are able connect with each other and are encourage to share their knowledge about their projects well past a few rounds of contests, now you have something possibly sustainable.

    Same goes with you weekend warriors out there… if you’re just standing up a weekend event and incentivizing participation with some pizza and cash, not much is going to happen for anyone after you send them home on Sunday. But if you do it every month and you plan for day one, to think about year one, and year two, and so forth, now you have something approaching sustainable.

    Big ideas, with little in the way of consistent action, is never going hold up for long.