Everyone jumped on the app contest bandwagon. Now what?

The next wave of government app contests need to incorporate sustainability, community, and civic value.

The open government community has learned some hard lessons about app contests and sustainability, many of which, when expressed here on Radar last month, created a strong debate.

After reading Andy Oram’s post, Virginia-based civic developer Waldo Jacquith, who was recently recognized as a “champion of change by the White House for his work on Richmond Sunlight, published a sharp critique of government app contests in general. Jacquith writes that, after watching the applications presented at June’s Health Data Initiative Forum, he came to a realization that there are two categories of apps:

… those that were liable to exist six months later, and those that weren’t. These apps have got to have a business model, whether making money themselves, or being such clear grant-bait that it’s clear an organization will take them on to house. Otherwise it’s just a toy that will do nothing to benefit anybody. The exception is perhaps for government units that are not collectively persuaded that there’s value to opening up their data — perhaps such contests to put their data to work can serve as inspiration.

There isn’t an inherent problem in app contests, I don’t think,
but they’re probably not worth bothering with unless there’s a
simultaneous effort to foster a community around those data. There’s got to at least be a couple of ringers, folks with good ideas who are prepared to create something valuable. Otherwise I think app contests are liable to disappear as quickly as they appeared, a strange blip in the upward climb of open data technologies.

Volunteers work on projects at the second Crisis Camp Haiti at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Volunteers work on projects at the second Crisis Camp Haiti (January 2010) at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Clay Johnson, who gained significant experience guiding such
contests as the former director of Sunlight Labs, has been advocating that governments focus on building
communities, not app contests

“Whether it’s for procurement,
press, or community, the important part is that the app contest
deadline is the beginning of the engagement with the developers, not the end,” wrote
this summer.

Dan Melton, the chief technology officer at Code For America, described a
deeper issue for this “movement of makers” on the nonprofit’s blog. As entrepreneurs, civic hackers, open government advocates and urban leaders try to make government better, Melton highlights a key tension around scaling:

On one side, we’re trying to achieve policy change for
a more transparent, efficient and participatory government. On the
other, we’re making the tools and software necessary for that to
happen. We haven’t quite figured out how to meld the two movements’
successful organizing strategies.

In particular, Melton took a hard look at the return on investment
that the civic media community has received from app contests and
hackathons to date and found reason for both concern and hope:

Policy makers/political leaders champion city or social
contests, to which developers respond with dozens or even hundreds of submissions. So far so good. When the app contest is over, often too is the partnership. Maybe one or two apps will be adopted by the sponsoring entity; sometimes none. It’s very very rare that we see widespread replication or scaling of these efforts and applications across our movement. We could have an app contest in every one of 360ish metro regions, and not a single widely spread app as a result.

In fact, in the past year, I’ve counted nearly 80 hackathons, contests and other types of events in our space. At an average of 40 participants and say 10 hours (low), that’s 32,000 hours of cognitive surplus spent on software. This isn’t a problem of effort, excitement, time or energy. It’s a problem of scale, leveraging each other’s work and replication.

We make once, but we’re not very good at making many times. We
don’t lack from makers, just in our organization, 550 this year wanted to commit a year of their life to making. I’m excited about the opportunities for replication and scaling through CityCamp, Civic Commons, Code for
America, Open Plans and Sunlight Labs amongst others. Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but we’re really lacking tools for widespread engagement, coordination and replication.

If we’re a movement of makers, what do our factories look like?

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Seeking sustainability

For people who have created or participated in hackathons, this may come as bitter medicine, but it’s in keeping with the agile
development culture that many coders now work within. If an approach isn’t working, analyze the problem, try a different solution, measure the outcomes, and learn from your failures.

One clear trend in government app contests in cities is a shift from “what’s possible with this dataset” to focusing
on the needs of citizens.

New York City Big AppsIn New York City, the NYC BigApps contest is trying to tie ideas to development. Chicago’s open government approach to an app contest, Apps for Metro Chicago, has focused explicitly on sustainability, requiring open source code, offering technical assistance and explicitly connecting communities with software developers.

There are other reasons to continue to refine the model that go
beyond connecting communities or app generation. As GIS developer Eric Wolf commented at Jacquith’s blog, prototyping and testing data are two valuable functions that government app contests can serve:

1. To test/validate the infrastructure used to “open” government data. App contests can provide an intense beta test by people who can provide precise feedback about what works and doesn’t work.

2. To demonstrate usability concepts around the information produced by a government agency. The app doesn’t have to live on, but the combination of information and interface the app created may guide future developments in the agency.

I would suspect that an app contest could become an important part
of standard government contracting. Or even contract validation. You want to build a system that streamlines an agency’s information use and makes it more transparent? Here’s a relatively cheap way to beta test the effort or even do some rapid prototyping.

Here are a couple data points for architects of app contests to consider:

  1. The winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup, MyCityWay. While $5 million in funding isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn’t been addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital
    city guide that’s populated with open government data.
  2. One of the winners of the second Apps for America contests is GovPulse.us. The civic
    behind the app, which provided a better way to browse the open data behind the Federal Register, the nation’s official publication for government rules, subsequently worked with government to redesign and relaunch FederalRegister.gov using
    open source and open standards. That outcome, available to all
    citizens to see and build upon was one of the best case studies for
    open government in 2010. In August 2011, Federal Register 2.0 launched an API, further moving to act as a platform built upon open source and open standards.

Lesson learned? Whether developers are asked to
participate in federal challenges or civic hackathons, it’s time for governments convening them to focus on sustainability.

There will be plenty of chances to apply that lesson in the months ahead. For instance, a California law hackathon planned for September 3-4 will offer an opportunity to explore an open source approach to CA law. That same weekend in Washington, citizens interested in greening the Internet by making Apps for the Environment are invited to an American
University hackathon
. And developers who want to pursue $100,000 in prizes in the Apps for Communities challenge are up against an August 31 deadline.

To its credit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made a public effort to learn about the issues surrounding app contests. Last week, I moderated an EPA webinar on open data at the agency’s D.C. headquarters. The webinar featured a robust conversation about open data and app contests that touched on many of the critiques rendered above, along with persistent issues around government data quality, availability and structure. Jeremy Carbaugh of the Sunlight
and Michaela Hackner and Kurt Voelker of ForumOne shared their perspectives with me in the video embedded below:

The presentation used in the webinar is embedded below, including
useful links to resources.

Apps for the Environment
Developer Webinar

If you have feedback and ideas on how to make app contests and hackathons sustainable, let us know in the comments.

Photo: IMG_0597 by Divergence, on Flickr



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