A ‘Glass Half Full’ View of Government App Contests

An increasing number of people are starting to suggest that the concept of the “app contest” (where governments challenge developers to build civic applications) is getting a bit long in the tooth.

There have been lots of musings lately about the payoff for governments that hold such contests and the long term viability of individual entries developed for these contests. Even Washington DC – the birthplace of the current government app contest craze – seems the be moving beyond the framework it has employed not once, but twice to engage local developers:

“I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way,” says Bryan Sivak, who became the district’s chief technology officer in 2009. Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a “great idea” for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more “cool” than useful to the average city resident.

App Contests Abound

This view is starting to crystallize against the backdrop of an ever greater number of app contests being held. At the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs (who helped launch the first government app contest in DC) gave a presentation that listed several dozen governments around the globe that had recently completed an app contest or were scheduled to soon start one.

And the biggest app contest to date – being sponsored by the State of California – is slated to begin soon. (Two fringe technology companies that you’ve probably never heard of – Google and Microsoft – are set to partner with the Golden State for this 800 pound gorilla of government app contests.)

So if app contests are being used in more and more places, and the size and scope of these contests keeps growing, what’s with all the hand wringing of late?

Lessons Learned from App Contests

My take on app contests is not an unbiased one. I’ve been a competitor in three different app contests (the original Apps for Democracy, the original Apps for America, and the NYC Big Apps competition) and was recognized for my work in them. Outside of contests, I’ve build applications using open government data and APIs for the cities of Toronto and San Francisco, and for the New York State Senate.

Clearly I am a supporter of the concept of the government app contest.

Having said that, though, I do think that those taking a more skeptical view of app contests are asking some important questions. The government app contest has come a long way since Vivek Kundra was in the driver’s seat in the DC technology office. It’s time to start asking how app contests can be improved.

But before we move on to that discussion, it is worth noting the lessons that have been learned over the last two years or so from government app contests.

First, governments and citizens benefit when high value, high quality data sets are released by governments that are in machine readable formats, easily consumed by third party applications. Believe it or not, there is still debate in many places on this point. App contests prove the theory that publishing open government data provides tangible benefits.

Second, app contests prove that it is possible to engage and excite both developers and high level elected officials about open government data. The cause of open government can’t be anything but well served when these two groups are excited about it, and appealing to both successfully in equal measure is usually very challenging.

Third, and maybe most importantly, government app contests provide sort of a “petri dish” for government officials to see how government data might be used. They let governments solicit ideas from the private sector about the different ways that open data can be used in a manner that is low risk and low cost. Some of the proposed uses of government data that emerge from these contests – whether its tweeting a recorded message to your Congressman, or using an IM client to browse campaign finance data – might never be considered by governments but for them running an app contest.

These lessons aside, there are those who contend that the existence of app contest entries that have languished (or even been abandoned altogether) after a contest is over suggests that an app contest didn’t work well (or as well as it should have). I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Look at it this way; once a government has decided to publish open data sets and enable the development of one single app by an outside developer, the marginal cost of the next app (from the perspective of government) is essentially zero.

Once a data set has been put into a machine readable format and staged for download so that it can be used by a developer or third party, what is the cost of the next download? Or the next 50, or 100? Essentially nothing.

The road to tech startup profitability and success is a long and hard one, and it’s littered with the hollowed out husks of ideas (some very bad, some very good) that for one reason or another just don’t make it.

Should we be overly concerned that the dynamic of government app contest entries is essentially the same as it is for any other sort of technology startup project? Personally, I don’t think so.

Making App Contests Better

I do however, think there are some things that government app contests organizers can do a better job on.

Most notably, government engagement with app developers over the long-term has proved to be somewhat challenging. Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat has observed the same phenomenon:

“..I would think that one of the desired outcomes [of an app contest] was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.”

I don’t think this is an issue with developers necessarily – I know there is still lots of excitement around the data sets that have served as the foundation for app contents that are now over. I think the issue is that governments do not always have a plan for post-contest developer engagement.

Once the prizes are given out, and the award ceremony is over, there are no plans or strategies in place to keep developers engaged over the long haul. I do not believe this is an issue of money – not every developer is looking for a cash prize, and there are some good examples of government agencies (MassDOT and BART among them) who do a pretty good job of keeping developers engaged without contests.

I also think that a greater emphasis could be placed in app contests on developing reusable components (as opposed to user-facing solutions) that can be released as open source software and used by anyone to consume data or interact with a government API. I’m talking specifically about things like open source libraries for interacting with the Open311 API – tools and libraries specifically designed to make it easier to use open government data.

The easier it is to use government data and APIs the more people will do it, and the more development of reusable components as a by product of app contest, the less angst there will be about projects that don’t remain viable long-term. If one of the requirements of entry is the use (or reuse) of common components, even contest entries that fizzle out down the road will have made a tangible contribution to the open data effort.

I think with a few simple changes, app contests can continue to be used as an effective tool by governments to encourage the development of cutting edge applications powered by “democratized” government data.

The Economic Promise of Open Government Data

It’s been a few weeks since I suggested that by embracing open government data, the State of Delaware (and other states and localities) could encourage the development of nimble software companies and spur entrepreneurship.

Since then, it’s been very gratifying to see lots of other people come to the same conclusion:

I particularly like this statement from Jake Brewer of the Sunlight Foundation:

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

I couldn’t have said it any better myself…