$2 Million Worth of Software for $50,000

Vivek Kundra, the former Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, decided to turn everything on its head. Instead of waiting for a FOIA (...
by | August 5, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

Vivek Kundra, the former Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, decided to turn everything on its head.

Instead of waiting for a FOIA (Freedom on Information Act) request to provide a specific piece of data, why not make your data public in the first place?

Instead of spending all your IT resources on government portals, why not build applications in the sort of tools people really use, like Facebook and Google Maps?

Instead of buying expensive, customized applications, why not use open source?

Instead of a lengthy and expensive procurement process to solve a specific problem, why not hold a contest and invite anybody to solve any problem they wanted solved?

It's all revolutionary in the world of government IT. And it all worked.

Here's the story. In September of 2008, Kundra met with iStrategy Labs CEO Peter Corbett. Within weeks, iStrategyLabs had a purchase order, the intent being to take data feeds from the District and make them useful. How? By holding a contest with prizes totalling $50,000 and allowing anyone to submit their applications. Companies, schools, teenagers living in their mother's basement--the only rule was that the application had to have an open source license--meaning anyone had access to the design code in full.

On October 15, 2008, the District announces the contest, called "Apps for Democracy," and all software developers are welcome. A total of $433.41 is spent advertising the contest. Despite the low budget, word spreads like wildfire among the geek community.

On November 13, 2008, Mayor Fenty announced the winners. The results were amazing, creating 47 new applications in $50,000--in less than one month.

The new applications included everything from "BanksNearMeRightNow," which takes GPS information from your mobile phone and tells you where the closest banks are, to iLive.at, which takes any address in the district and provides a raft of valuable information on everything from crime rates, to the nearest post office, to neighborhood demographics.

It all begins with transparency. To give developers something to work with, the District had to put more than 200 data feeds into the public domain in a variety of usable forms. Want to know where crimes happened yesterday? Which permits were granted? What purchase orders went out? It's all out there on DC's "Digital Public Square." (dpc.dcs.gov)

In addition to the benefit of these new applications, the contest showcased a new way of thinking about public data, and about the relationship between government and its citizens.

"All interesting developments today are occurring at the intersection of disciplines--math and philosophy, for example, or crime and public health" says Kundra. "So we wanted to allow creative people out there to take our raw data and create usable information in a context that makes sense to them. For example, most governments have spent a lot of money on their main portals. But we can't compete with the more than 100 million Facebook users out there, or the millions of "Craigslist" users. Why not put information in the context that users will use it?"

The ability to combine "mashups" of data enabled developers, for example, to merge information about the sites of historic locations with crime data. Now tourists can see data that will show them if the tourist site they are heading for is safe (Most of them, it turns out, are--but it is kinda cool to see it mapped out.)

Kundra estimates of the value of the applications developed at around $2.4 million.

The DC experience is a refreshing change from the typical world of public sector IT procurement. After all, we've all seen what happens when 19th century procurement rules meet 21st century technology--generally speaking, it's a disaster. Procurement rules, even in IT, are designed to prevent public officials from directing funds to shoddy but connected providers. To do that, procurement officers have to specify, or in the case of IT, design, the very application that they are seeking to purchase. Technology and IT demands are moving too quickly for the slow, cumbersome procurement process of the traditional public sector.

There are too many horror stories about high-priced consultants who win multi-million dollar procurements, only to have the project languish over years with no real benefits as

change orders after change order boosts overall project cost. The proprietary, highly customized design and coding that goes into major projects can be incredibly expensive. Kundra and DC has shown it doesn't have to be.

The experience of participatory democracy from the District of Columbia is a refreshing change, and perhaps a glimpse into a better future.

Vivek Kundra has since moved on to take a role in the administration of President Obama, and many are expecting similar innovations.

John O'Leary (johnoleary@alum.mit.edu) is the executive editor of the Ash Institute's Better, Faster, Cheaper web site, and coauthor of the book "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon..." to be published by the Harvard Business School Press in Fall 2009.