App Contests and Open Data: Alive and Well

Earlier this month, an article appeared in Government Technology magazine focusing on the legacy of the opengov app development contest, pioneered in Washington DC several years ago with the Apps for Democracy contest.

This article raises some important questions for app contest organizers, particularly governments that may view them as a way to stimulate interest in using open data sets. It also examines the long-term viability (and current status) of applications developed as part of the Apps for Democracy contest, and suggests that there is a relationship between the ultimate benefit of government sponsored app contests and the long-term operation of such apps.

Some of the issues raised in this article have come up before, and I’ve written about them and taked about them extensively in different forums.

I think examining the return on investment for government sponsored app contests, and looking for ways to make them more useful and successful, is a very good thing.

However, this article had some statements in it that I feel compelled to address, and it also lacked the proper focus to achieve what it may have set out to do – provide information on the legacy of Apps for Democracy and the current state of government app contests.

Open Data is Alive and Well

One of the statements I feel compelled to address was attributed to one of the organizers of the original Apps for Democracy contest, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs:

“You don’t see cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City or any major metropolises jumping and saying, ‘We need to do this now.’ There doesn’t seem to be a stampede movement like there should be,” Corbett said, pointing out that open data initiatives are catching fire in European countries.

I respectfully disagree with my friend Peter on this point.

In just the last few months we have seen major metropolises like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago (to name just a few) unveil open government data portals. And these cities also have vigorous communities around their portals, organizing app development events and pushing for additional data sets.

Does this qualify as a stampede? Probably not, but lets not pretend that a growing number of cities are not embracing open data. They clearly are.

It isn’t just cities, either. State governments are also joining the movement – Oregon and California jump immediately to mind.

And those that embraced open data early are formalizing their commitment to open data – the City of Portland is a great example of this.

And it isn’t just cities in the U.S., either – municipal governments in Canada have also been particularly active on the open data front.

What Defines Success?

The article takes the view that because some of the applications that are developed as part of government sponsored app contests are not commercially viable, or maintained long-term, there is limited benefit to government sponsorship and support (particularly financial support).

[M]any apps generated by government open data programs cease being updated once hype over their creation subsides. Governments usually lack the interest and resources to take over maintenance of the applications, and developers have trouble making money off them.

If I took a guess, I’d say with a fair amount of confidence that most developers who build civic applications have no interest in making money off them (beyond enough to offset out of pocket costs).

But should commercialization, or even long-term viability, of an app developed as part of a government sponsored app contest be used as a measure of their usefulness? This is an issue I’ve dicussed before, and my felings have not changed.

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.

The record for success on all technology startups is daunting, and yet governments spend considerable sums funding startups through economic development activities, tax benefits and support for VCs (some governments provide resources to back VC and “angel” investor funds).

Why is there a different standard for open gov startups?

It’s also worth noting that many open gov startup projects leave enhanced open data sets in their wake. If one of the things open gov app developers must do to support their project is to manually clean up or enhance data, this can result in better data sets for other developer to use down the road, providing an additional public benefit.

App contests are Going Strong

The following quote in the article is attributed to Former DC CIO Bryan Sivak:

“[Open data] has sort of lost some of the luster it had a couple of years ago, but I think that’s typical for any sort of newer idea — new technology, new product or whatever,” Sivak said. “When you first launch something there is a peak of inflated expectation, which inevitably drops into the valley of disinterest.”

It’s hard to find evidence of this disinterest in the plethora of app development contests and hackathons taking place all over the country, each with government open data as their foundation.

Examples of this abound – New York City’s Big Apps II, Apps for Californians, open data hacking events in Philly, Baltimore and Portland, Apps for Ottowa, Apps for Edmonton, OpenGov West, Apps for Communities. The list goes on. And on.

I think the article’s focus on DC is it’s ultimate undoing.

Once a leader in the open government movement, DC municipal government seems to have completely lost interest in open data and engaging application developers. This is partly the result of the ouster of Mayor Adrian Fenty and, as a result, a new set of priorities coming from a new Mayor.

But if the legacy of Apps for Democracy isn’t visible when you look at DC, it’s visible outside of the District. It lies in the many other cities and states that have embraced open data (and the app contest as a tool for promoting the use of open data), as central tenants to their transparency policies.

What’s the Big Deal?

I believe that this article has the potential to damage the move toward open data, particularly in places that have yet to embrace it.

Let’s face it – your average middle to upper management public IT official isn’t getting their news by filtering Twitter hashtags, or reading Hacker News.

They are more likely to have a copy of Government Technology Magazine on their desk, and it’s a fairly easy take away from this article that there is something wrong with the open data movement.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and those of us that support it have an obligation to ensure that people who make decisions in government are aware that the movement is healthy, and going strong.