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August 19 2011

Everyone jumped on the app contest bandwagon. Now what?

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 Johnson 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 now 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 href="http://GovPulse.us">GovPulse.us. The href="http://govfresh.com/2010/07/government-citizen-developers-join-forces-to-build-new-federal-register-2-0-website/">civic
    developers 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, href="http://www.federalregister.gov/blog/2011/08/api-now-available-from-federal-register-2-0">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 Foundation 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



Related:


August 10 2011

FCC contest stimulates development of apps to help keep ISPs honest

Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the winners of its open Internet Challenge.

"The winners of this contest will help ensure continued certainty, innovation and investment" in the broadband sector," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski at the awards ceremony. "Shining a light on network management practices will ensure that incentives for entrepreneurs and innovators remain strong. They will help deter improper conduct helping ensure that consumers and the marketplace pick winners and losers online, and that websites or applications aren't improperly blocked or slowed."

The contest received twenty four submissions in total, with three winners. MobiPerf, a mobile network measurement tool that runs on Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile devices, won both the People's Choice Award and best overall Open Internet App. MobiPerf collects anonymous network measurement information directly from mobile phones. MobiPerf was designed by a University of Michigan and Microsoft Research team.

mobperf-apps.jpg


Two apps and teams shared the Open Internet Research Award. ShaperProbe, which was originally called, "DiffProbe," is designed to detect service discrimination by Internet service providers (ISPs). ShaperProbe uses the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) research platform. All of the data collected through ShaperProbe will be publicly accessible, according to Georgia Institute of Technology, which developed the app.

Netalyzer is a Web-based Java app that measures and debugs a network. Notably, the Netalyzer Internet traffic analysis tool has a "Mom Mode," which may make it more accessible to people like, well, my own mother. Netalyzer was built by the International Computer Science Institute (ISCI) at the University of California at Berkeley.

More details about the winners and the teams that built them is available at FCC.gov.

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Open Internet questions


It almost goes without saying that this contest carried some baggage at the outset. Last December, the launch of a new contest by the Federal Communications Commission was overshadowed by concerns about what the new FCC open Internet rules could mean for net neutrality, particularly with respect to the mobile space that is of critical interest to many developers. Nonetheless, the FCC open Internet challenge went forward, focused on stimulating the development of apps for network quality of service testing.

Amidst legitmate concerns about the sustainability of apps contests, the outcomes of this Open Internet challenge offers a couple of important data points.

First, the challenge does seem to have stimulated the creation of a new resource for the online community: unlike the other two winners, the MobiPerf app was created for the contest, according to FCC press secretary Neil Grace.

Second, when this challenge launched, collecting more data for better net neutrality was a goal that organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and M-Lab supported. The best answers to questions about filtering or shaping rely "on the public having real knowledge about how our Internet connections are functioning and whether or not ISPs are providing the open Internet that users want," wrote Richard Esguerra.

Now the public has better tools to gather and share that knowledge. Will these apps "shed light" on broadband providers' tactics? As with so many apps, that will depend on whether people *use* them or not. The two winning apps that existed before the contest, Netalyzer and ShaperProbe, have already been used thousands of times, so there's reason to expect more usage. For instance, Netalyzer can be (and was) applied in analyzing widespread search hijacking in the United States. In that context, empowered consumers that can detect and share data about the behavior of their Internet service providers could play a more important role in the broadband services market.

Finally, the FCC has established new ties to the research and development communities at Berkeley, Georgia Tech and other institutions. It connected with the community. Integrating more technical expertise from academia with the regulator's institutional knowledge is an important outcome from the challenge, and not one that is as easily measured as "a new app for that." It's not clear yet whether the outcomes from the Apps for Communities challenge, set to conclude on August 31st, will be as positive.

The expertise and the data collected from these apps might come also in handy if the time ever comes when the regulator has to make a controversial decision about whether a given ISP's service to its users goes beyond "reasonable network management."

Reposted bykrekk krekk

August 12 2010

Four short links: 12 August 2010

  1. A Review of Verizon and Google's Net Neutrality Proposal (EFF) -- a mixture of good and bad, is the verdict. I am ready to give Google credit for getting Network Neutrality back on the regulatory agenda, whether or not this proposal was a strawman.
  2. Ten Principles for Opening Up Government Information (Sunlight Foundation) -- We have updated and expanded upon the Sebastopol list and identified ten principles that provide a lens to evaluate the extent to which government data is open and accessible to the public. The list is not exhaustive, and each principle exists along a continuum of openness. The principles are completeness, primacy, timeliness, ease of physical and electronic access, machine readability, non-discrimination, use of commonly owned standards, licensing, permanence and usage costs.
  3. What If the Web Really Worked for Science? Reimagining Data Policy and Intellectual Property (video) -- a talk by James Boyle on IP and science policy.
  4. Winners of the Apps for Army Challenge -- more Android apps than iPhone in the winners. (via Alex)

July 02 2010

Four short links: 2 July 2010

  1. Brien Lane, Melbourne -- an alleyway painted with statistics about the area. Urban spaces as screens. Check out the other photos. (via Pete Warden)
  2. Apps 4 Africa -- from US State Department, The challenge is to build the best digital tools to address community challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to education and government transparency to election monitoring. (via Clay Johnson)
  3. Hopeful Monsters and the Trough of Disillusionment (Berg London) -- this was a great Foo talk, lovely to see the ideas written up and circulated widely.
  4. Tyranny of the Daily 10 Percent (Julie Starr) -- do we have a production quality problem, or do we have a filter problem? Intersection of two trends we've seen: "news reinvention" and "information overload". I find myself wanting to spend more time quantifying what we’ve already got that’s good and being clearer about what we think is missing, before thinking about what to replace it with and how to foot the bill.

May 21 2010

Gov 2.0 Week in Review

This past week in government 2.0 news was full, as always, particularly for this correspondent as the Gov 2.0 Expo comes to Washington next week. Bernard Kouchner may have written that the "universal spirit of the Enlightenment should run through the new media" but this week, the zeitgeist of the government information revolution online was powered by open data. As always, if you have comments or suggestions, please send them to alex@oreilly.com or reply to @digiphile on Twitter.

Data.gov 2.0

Thumbnail image for data-gov-2-small.jpgThe news that earned the most headlines was of the relaunch of Data.gov, which has seen substantial growth and improvements since the U.S. federal government published the first data set at the online repository a year ago. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra called data.gov: "pretty advanced for a 1-year-old" at the White House blog and talked at length on Federal News Radio about the anniversary of the website. The best coverage of the relaunch came from Wired's sneak peak at the redesigned Data.gov. Read NextGov for another good take on the update to the nation's data warehouse. And on the first anniversary of Data.gov, the Sunlight Fondation officially announced the launch of the National Data Catalog.

Government as a Platform

Over on the West Coast, Debra Bowen, Secretary of State of California, talked with Tim O'Reilly about Law.gov at the University of Berkeley. Video is embedded below:

Open Data

"The more open a government agency is, the more it seems that the public trusts it," mused Chris Dorobek in his post on public trust and government. If so, the creation of a "right to data" under the "Big Society proposals" from the new United Kingdom government could be significant. For those interested, there's a good overview of European mashups of public data at OurData.eu.

Up in Canada, David Eaves explored "open data as an example of the long tail of public policy at work."

Back in the United States, as Luke Fretwell pointed out at GovFresh, USAspending.gov relaunched this week as well. Fretwell approved, noting in his review that the new site "includes a cleaner, more elegant user interface and search filtering on all federal government spending." The new version of USASpending.gov was developed in Drupal and is partially hosted on NASA’s Nebula cloud computing platform.

And up in space? It turns out that open space data from NASA can improve lives - and save birds. The new evangelist for Data.gov, Jeanne Holm, explained what an international ontology of open space data is and why it's important.

What's next for open data online? A Senate bill would require agencies to post public records online. It's a companion to legislation (H.R. 4858) introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York earlier this year. One example of open data online is at data.seattle.gov, where the city is now publishing 911 data in near real-time via the Socrata Open Data API.

If you're interested in exploring open data further, follow the brilliant statistician Hans Rosling, the man behind gapminder.org. Speaking at the World Bank today, he posited that "open data will foster innovation," an contention that may be borne out by the applications created around the data.worldbank.org. You can see Riesling's ably expressed in the Ted Talk embedded below, "Let my dataset change your mindset."

Internet freedom, government and democracy

Will the Internet bring more freedom and representative government? How should governments treat the online world and citizens? An important article from Rebecca MacKinnon, "In search of Internet Freedom," went deep into that question this past week. Back in April, Google's D.C. Talks featured "Democracy Online - Can the Internet Bring Change?," a forum in its Washington office that featured Pablo Chavez, Managing Policy Counsel, Google, Larry Diamond, Professor & Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs, Freedom House, and Omid Memarian, an Iranian blogger. It's embedded below:

This past week, Micah L. Sifry, Andrew Keen, Jimmy Wales and Farhad Manjoo came the National Press Club in D.C. to debate whether the Internet was good for democracy. Video is embedded below. You'll see this correspondent ask an overlong question about open government, Internet freedom and global democracy about 70 minutes in.

There was a notable demonstration of the Internet's ability to connect people outside of government filters when the @DalaiLama used Twitter to communicate with Chinese Web users, as reported by the Associated Foreign Press and the Associated Press.

The week ended with a lively discussion, "Does the Internet Favor Dictators or Dissenters?" The live webcast featured Eric Schmidt, Alec Ross, Tim Wu and James Fallows.

Facebook, privacy and government

Early this week, each user's interests, hobbies, work and education choices became Community pages pages on Facebook. That switch over also included associating locations, like cities, and government agencies, including federal entities, with these pages.

As Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang made clear in his report, changes to Facebook Commmunity pages and privacy impact brands -- including government entities. The switch over is poised to cause some confusion for citizens looking for official accounts, and potentially some frustration for institutions that had entered into agreements with Facebook as a media partner. Compare Facebook's Department of Defense Community to the official agency page, Facebook.com/DeptofDefense.

facebook-DoD-search-results.jpgIs this "govjacking," as Adriel Hampton suggested in his post on Facebook and government pages? As the screenshot on the right shows, these Community pages are currently ranked higher in search and are not curated by agencies, though both conditions may change.. The Terms of Service that the federal government agreed to with Facebook contain a clause that their agreement that would supersedes any changes to the general Terms of Service that conflict with it.

Given the use of official seals and the absence of a clear disclaimer on the pages, some citizens may be confused, despite the fact that Wikipedia content makes up much of the page. Facebook does note prominently that "You can also get us started by suggesting the Official Facebook Page," with an associated submission form. The official page did not, however, appear after I input the correct URL.

Resolving confusion about the official nature of a page may be a point of concern for government Web managers and citizens alike over the coming weeks as the rough edges of Community pages are smoothed out. Trust and identity are both bedrock issues for government use of social media, including Facebook pages. Government agencies appear to be considering options: the General Service Administration's @GovNewMedia account tweeted on Tuesday that "We're taking a look; see earlier tweet: http://is.gd/ceISC For reference, here's the amended Facebook ToS: http://bit.ly/aw5B6V."

Gov 2.0 Expo Draws Near

This past week, I appeared on Gov20Radio with Gov 2.0 Expo Co-Chair Laurel Ruma, where we talked with host Adriel Hampton about the upcoming conference. You can listen to the episode, "Government as a Platform is Here to Stay" at BlogTalkRadio.com or stream it below.

During the show, we discussed the panels, speakers and workshops we're looking forward to next week, including many of those cited in Steve Lunceford's 10+ "hidden gems" not to miss at Gov 2.0 Expo. I'm looking forward to learning the winner to Sunlight Laboratories Design for America contest.

New Media Challenges, Competitions and Milestones

before-after-paving.jpgRecovery.gov has a Flickr pool that is aggregating pictures of projects from citizens and public servants alike. For instance, the Oregon Department of Transportation posted a "before and after picture of a paving project (left).

OhMyGov.com reported that the Maryland government may soon require political candidates and government agencies to identity official social media sites.

Nancy-AnnDeParle.jpgFolks who follow Gov 2.0 on Twitter may have noticed problogger Heather Dooce engaged in a real-time question and answer session on healthcare reform with the White House on Twitter Nancy-Ann DeParle answered @dooce from @WhiteHouse, though without context or signing some of the tweets she might have left a few of the 1.75 million followers wondering what was happening. That said, DeParle also answered a question from someone other than @dooce, showing that she was willing to engage in a broader conversation.

Over in the House, the GOP Conference's "New Media Challenge," which began back in mid-April, also came to an end this Friday. While winners have yet to be announced, the competition heightened fueled growth in the use of social media by Republicans in Congress.

Not every member of Congress, however, is comfortable with tweeting yet. So why does the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tweet? As it turns out, the @TheJointStaff) has a well-developed social media strategy, as Swimfish CTO John F. Moore pointed out: "Engage, Align, Drive, Expand."

The White House delivered another episode of "West Wing Week," embedded below.

Government 2.0 Bits and Bytes

The General Services Agency launched Info.Apps.gov to serve as a "place where agencies can gather information about how cloud computing.

How do you move from a culture of "need to know" to a culture of "need to share?" Have you heard of StateBook, Virtual Presence Posts or Diplopedia? How does the U.S. State Dept use social media *behind its firewall? I wrote about how the State Department uses social software to support eDiplomacy this week.

Dr. David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, posted a summary of where his office stands in building a Nationwide Health Information Network.

Both USCourts.gov and Commerce.gov relaunched. As the Washington Post reported, USCourts.gov now includes a court locator, court services and employment links.

Chicago's new data portal shows Freedom of Information Act requests.

How do app contests get government going? My in-depth interview with Peter Corbett on how app contests are unlocking government innovation went live today. The closing data for Apps for Army, These apps are being developed using the Department of Defense's secure RACE cloud computing platform to emulate mobile hardware. And as Corbett pointed out this week, there's now an "Apps for Democracy" in Norway.

The Sunlight Foundation showed again how an embedded webcast, CoverItLive and data feeds can define coverage of legislative debate at SunlightFoundation.com/live.

There's a livestream of the leaking drill head on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico hosted at House.gov, appropriately entitled "Oil Spill Cam."

California created a portal for the state's 10,000 IT workers.

John Udell wondered what could happen if there were permalinks and hashtags for city council agenda items.

The Air Force reclassified 3000 communication officers as "cyberspace officers."

Reno Web Manager Kristy Fifelski shared how Reno.gov is "going gov 2.0" at govfresh.

Laptops continue to plague government health data keepers.Health IT security and privacy are critical to this aspect of key Gov 2.0.

The Dept. of Energy is accepting applications for agency CIO in Second Life.

The FBI CIO unveils his "next-generation" IT strategy.

Chris Berendes wondered how measuring Gov 2.0 would apply to DHS's #opengov tool for the oil spill cleanup.

What's missing from the Gov 2.0 movement? Education, says Manor CIO Dustin Haisler.

The U.S. Census will improve its use of the Web in future population counts.

Love tech policy, regulations and social media? The FTC is looking for a social media specialist.

I interviewed Booz Allen Hamilton principal Grant McGlaughlin about online participation & engagement by federal agencies. The video is embedded below:

And at last, if you made to the end of this week's Gov 2.0 in Review, we'll send you off into the weekend with a smile: the Onion reported that the "Majority Of Government Doesn't Trust Citizens Either."

App contests are unlocking government innovation

In August, Army CIO Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson will announce the winner of the Apps for the Army Challenge. He'll be speaking about the progress of the contest at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C. next week. Regardless of which application wins the contest, however, the development of software by coders in the Army is an important case study in disruptive IT innovation. Creating application contests, especially for government entities, is no walk in the park, given the complex rules and regulations that govern procurement.

The man who may know the most about the nuts and bolts behind that process is Peter Corbett, the founder and CEO of iStrategyLabs an interactive agency based in DC. In the Government 2.0 world, Corbett is well-known for co-creating Apps for Democracy with Vivek Kundra, now federal CIO, and for his work on Transparency Camp, Government 2.0 Camp and civic entrepreneurship. An edited interview with Corbett on app contests, open data and innovation follows. For the raw take, you can also listen in to the embedded podcast.

What are your current projects?

Peter Corbett: At the moment, it's Digital Capital Week, a specific innovation initiative we've got here in the District. It's 3,000 plus people, all geeks and creatives, who want to make the city and world a better place. It'l be here June 11-20.

We're also doing Apps for the Army. When application development challenges wrap up and all of the apps are shown, that's when it really gets exciting.

Apps for the Army is important, in terms of what that might mean for contracting and for IT development in government. Where did the app contest phenomenon come from?

Peter CorbettPC: We created Apps for Democracy with Vivek Kundra and the Office of the Chief Technology Officer back in 2008. Vivek had said, "Peter, I heard that you're a guy that knows how to do 'weird things' with technology. I'd like to meet you and talk to you about what we're doing in DC." I came in and he showed me the data catalog, data.octo.dc.gov. At the time, I believe there were about 250 data feeds, all open government data about the District of Columbia, including real-time crime information, locations of potholes, school test scores, etc.

Two days later, I gave him a proposal and I called it, "Hack the District." And he said, "No, that can't fly. We've got to call it Apps for Democracy." And three weeks later, we had a purchase order. Six days after that, we launched the contest. And within a month of launch we had 47 web, mobile, and iPhone applications developed.

That method spread. There's Apps for Democracy contests in Finland and in Australia and Canada. There are ones on the city level in Portland and New York. And London is going to have one soon. There's an Apps for Development by the World Bank coming out that is a global challenge. So it's just a good idea at the right time that we intentionally made open. We told everyone how we were doing what we were doing so that they could do their own thing.

One statistic that's been shared frequently is that by putting up X amount of money for a prize -- whether it's $5,000, $10,000, $50,000 -- contest creators receive a multi-factor return on that investment. Is that accurate? What are the actual numbers here?

PC: D.C. government, after the first Apps for Democracy competition, estimated the value of the apps created to be in excess of $2.2 million. The way they made that calculation was by taking the amount of human resources time it would take to hire and procure developers to build all of these things. In addition to that, figure in the human resource costs of procurement managers and project managers staffed at the government, which they estimated to be a bigger piece of the puzzle.

That $2.2 million, is that figure real? It's impossible to tell. Would the city have procured an iPhone application that shows you the nearest metro station and inbound and outgoing trains? They may never procure that.

Was it actually a cost-savings or was it a return on investment? It's hard to have that be a very firm number because it's not necessarily just about the applications developed. The actual engagement with citizens, and people becoming more passionate about doing things for their city, is almost invaluable.

Instead of thinking about new Facebook applications where you can throw sheep at one another, the technology community in D.C. is asking how it can build something that's going to help their neighbors safely navigate the city. That cultural shift is invaluable. You have to try and assign return on investment figures to these things just because that's the way it typically works in governments or large enterprises. But it goes beyond the hours and human resources required to do something that you can use.

Looking back at Apps for Democracy and Apps for America, how many of these applications are still around? How are they being used?

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010PC: We've done two Apps for Democracy competitions, in which there were 60-plus apps. I think only one of them has been turned off. That was a carpool mashup maker, where you could figure out better ways of getting a ride into the city. Most of them are still working and functioning. Some of them are used more than others.

One lesson I've learned is we don't really know because we don't have the analytics for each of the apps. If you're running an application development challenge, it would be great to give your developers individual Google Analytics codes so you can track usage. We didn't do that.

However, we do have information from the developers. DCHistoricTours.com, which is a way to build a walking tour of Washington, D.C., was incredibly popular during Obama's inauguration. It was basically the only place that had a robust map of the inauguration route mashed up with Wikipedia entries and Yelp entries. They were seeing something like 3,000 or 4,000 uniques a day. If you extrapolate, that was more than 100,000 unique people using that application in a month.

I personally use Park It D.C. because I drive around the city all the time. It that helps you see where there are car thefts or broken parking meters. I use Are You Safe D.C.. That's an iPhone application that shows you a threat meter, from green to red, on whether or not you're in a dangerous place based on the number of homicides and robberies.

How is Apps for the Army different than Apps for Democracy?

PC: With Apps for the Army, there are 119 developers working on 98 applications. The largest bucket are Android apps. There are about 28 Android apps and about 26 iPhone apps being built . There are apps built on the open source LAMP stack. There are asp.net apps and Blackberry apps.

This is different from Apps for Democracy because of the nature of the Army. The compensation is employee cash awards for Army soldiers and civilians. We're giving out $30,000 in employee cash awards, not prizes. The most crucial layer that we added in was the use of something called RACE (Rapid Access Computing Environment), which is a cloud computing platform that lets a developer build applications in a virtualized environment.

They're building apps in the cloud in a secure space. What that means is we're able to separate hardware from application development. If you know anything about federal, it's so hard to get the hardware. If you're a developer, how are you going to get an Android handset provision and then be able to do the work that you need to do? How do you get that to 100 people? How do you get that to people in Afghanistan and Iraq who are building stuff? We removed all of that concern by leveraging this cloud platform for development. There are certainly other idiosyncrasies, but that's probably the biggest piece that's different.

Most military software has historically been outsourced. With Apps for the Army, development is internal. If this contest is successful, what affect will that have on innovation in government and the military?

PC: You really have to credit Lt. General Sorenson for knowing and trusting that there was a latent demand for innovation among his soldiers and civilians. The gap between problem and solution is mostly being filled by contractors. That's not to say there's anything wrong with contractors, it just seems like there's this default that's been created over time where if you need technology you hire out.

But if a soldier in Afghanistan has a platform to build the solution to a problem through rapid means and have it certified and credentialed, they're going to solve their problem so much faster. Arguably, they'll solve it so much better because they're the user. They're the one with the problem.

What does that do for innovation in the long run? It speeds it up incredibly, which is what we need. We need to solve our problems faster and better than we are now because we have more and more of them every day. Rapid application development and agile development, which the startup world eats and breathes, is not only coming to federal, it's there. We're doing it. That's very exciting.

If you were to step back from this and do an app contest all over again, what advice would you give to people or government agencies?

PC: I wrote a guide and told everybody how they can do it [available here and embedded below]. It was for selfish reasons because I couldn't field all the phone calls and emails I was getting. The guide explains what I think a good apps contest or innovation challenge is all about.

Create an Apps for Democracy - Open Government Data Meets Citizen Innovation

[Below you'll find Corbett's presentation, "How to Create Your Own Apps for Democracy"]




Aside from that, what I'm preaching today is you've got to think beyond the apps. People get very fixated on applications. I get it. it's been a successful model that spread so fast because you get tangible results.

What I've been talking about a lot -- and I'll be talking about this at Gov 2.0 Expo -- is that the promise of all of this is to build civic innovation communities dedicated to solving the problems of citizens and government. Use the community's talent and passion to turn open data into something different, whether it's a web service or otherwise. And don't forget that a civic innovation community isn't just developers. It's social entrepreneurs, designers, nonprofits, and it's the government folks themselves.

We need to think about this from a long-term community development perspective. That's in dramatic contrast to a short-term, 30- or 60-day application development contest. Those are important because they're calls to action, but we can't be too short-sighted. We need to think long-term.


D.C. has been in the thick of models for open data, open government and e-government, with efforts like the Open 311 API and DC.gov's snow map mashup. What lessons can other communities learn from the civic-government ecosystem in D.C.?

PC: I think it's great that cities are now competing with one another to be the most open and innovative. That's awesome. That's exactly what we should be doing.

Why D.C.? D.C. has been special because it has a leader like Vivek Kundra to put new things in place, such as project tracking dashboards or green-lighting Apps for Democracy. There's also been a confluence of forces that were before my time. We have the CapStat program, which Baltimore pioneered more than 10 years ago. It treats city data like gold, putting it all in one place to make sure it can be correlated. What's starting to happen is that people are building public data catalogs and more web services to make correlations between that information. D.C. has been ahead in that area.

I'll be honest. There's a lot of stuff going on in Europe that, if it comes to bear in the next three or four months, they're going to leapfrog what we're doing, which is cool. Now you'll have continents and countries competing with one another to see who can be the most open and who can build the most interesting civic applications on top of their data. It's great for the people. It saves money, and it accelerates innovative service development.

This interview was condensed and edited.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the winners of Apps for the Army would be announced this month. We regret the error.

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