Government "Apps" Move from Cool to Useful

Recently created government "apps" contests are popular, but are they worth doing?
May 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

In 2008, Washington, D.C., launched one of the hotter trends in public-sector technology: the "apps contest." The idea-introduced by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra when he was the district's chief technology officer-was simple and innovative: The District government made the raw data it collects-such as the number of crime incidents and current construction project locations-publicly available on the Internet, and then challenged local software developers to create innovative uses for the information. The best software application, or "app," using the data could win thousands of dollars in prizes.

The contest, dubbed "Apps for Democracy," energized D.C.'s local software developers when it launched-developers created almost 50 software programs in 30 days, including apps that let residents check demographic data in their neighborhoods and plot routes for walking tours of the city. The contest was so well received that D.C. government held another Apps for Democracy contest in 2009. What's more, the idea quickly caught on around the country, and soon New York City and others were holding their own versions of it.

But even as more jurisdictions jump on the bandwagon-Portland, Ore., became the latest, unveiling "CivicApps for Greater Portland" in late March-D.C. is jumping off. "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.

"If you look at the applications developed in both of the contests we ran, and actually in many of the contests being run in other states and localities," he says, "you get a lot of applications that are designed for smartphones, that are designed for devices that aren't necessarily used by the large populations that might need to interact with these services on a regular basis."

Another problem is maintaining the new applications over the long term. As technology changes, these services must be updated and modified so they continue working-and Sivak wonders what happens when these applications' private-sector creators lose interest in keeping them running. Does the city government need to take them over? Should cash-strapped jurisdictions spend resources to maintain, say, an iPhone app used by a sliver of the population?

Sivak, however, isn't giving up on the idea of engaging smart and creative software developers for the public good; he simply wants a more meaningful relationship with them. Instead of incenting software entrepreneurs to create fringe applications, he wants their talent focused on solving core government problems-what Sivak calls the grand challenges of improving government efficiency and effectiveness.

But that will mean becoming even more transparent about the inner workings of city government. "We don't tend to release a lot of information about how things work internally," he says. "Once we start to do that and start to get some of that information out there, and start to get interest from citizens and developers in how the internal processes of government can be shaped and changed, I think we can actually start to leverage a lot of value."

Apps for Democracy introduced the idea that private-sector talent could be harnessed in innovative ways for the good of the community. Now the District of Columbia is ready to take what could be a much more meaningful next step.

June 7, 2010: This article was corrected to reflect the prize amounts for winners of Apps for Democracy.