Austin GigaTECHs App Competition Bridges Gap Between City and Local Innovators

Judges announce list of 11 finalists as Aug. 31 end-date approaches.

by / August 18, 2017
Shutterstock

In an effort to foster a new generation of apps that use ultra-fast connections to bolster municipal government, Austin, Texas, is hosting its first GigaTECHs App Competition, an event for which it has now released a list of 11 finalists.

Two winners from this field will get seed funding following a final pitch to judges on Thursday, Aug. 31, with the amount of distributed cash totaling $38,000. The reward will mark the culmination of an event that started in early June at the ATX Hack for Change day of civic hacking, with a total of 26 entries. Developers were asked to focus their work on local transportation, education, clean energy, health and public safety.

Austin’s competition is part of a nationwide initiative that’s being led by US Ignite, a nonprofit organization out of Washington, D.C., that strives to spur next-generation apps that would be foundational elements for smart communities powered by ultra-fast, programmable fiber and wireless networks.

“We wanted to really be as inclusive and broad as possible with our ideas, with our teams and with our app ideas,” said Charles Purma, an IT project manager with Austin. “We didn’t really want to dictate from the city’s perspective or from US Ignite’s perspective. We wanted to give some broad ideas, but really it was driven by the community.”

Purma also said that the city was initially hoping for 10 applicants and was thrilled to get 26 solid entries, all of which have the potential for improving the lives of not just Austinites, but of residents of other cities that will share the apps. Following the competition, the two winning teams are expected to use the seed money to build out prototypes. The award money will be broken down into chunks, distributed once the developers hit certain progress targets. To this end, the teams will establish timelines for deliverables. In addition to cash, the city plans to give the winners expertise.

“We really want to set up our teams for success, so they’ll have some design and user research folks at their disposal,” Purma said.

The finalists are:

The finalists apps are wide ranging and roundly impressive in their ambition and scope. One of note is the Just-in-time VR Training for Ambus EMS Personnel, which takes a bit of explaining.

As unfortunate as it is, most major population centers at one time will face a large-scale emergency event with potential for many causalities, and when they do, emergency responders are often brought in from nearby jurisdictions to render aid. In Central Texas, this is done along with a massive vehicle, a combination of a bus and an ambulance aptly called an ambus.

With this in mind, once a year officials generally use a presentation via PowerPoint to train paramedics and others who use the ambus. While the optimal solution would be training through sustained exposure to the actual equipment, this isn’t always an option. So, one tech company is building a VR platform that would allow responders to train within the ambus from anywhere.

The idea is that with this app, these responders would be able to familiarize themselves all over again with the ambus the day of an event for which they are needed by using virtual reality, possibly even by using their mobile devices while they speed toward an incident site. Through virtual reality, the app can even go so far as to simulate situations like hurricanes with high winds or school violence with active shooters.

“It’s one thing to look at a PowerPoint or walk through the ambus without any kind of stress situation going on to learn where all the equipment is,” said Grayson Lawrence, an associate professor of communication design at Texas State University who is a member of the team developing it. “It’s another thing if we can put them under increasingly stressful situations in a virtual environment. We can train them in a more realistic way.”

Lawrence said that even if his team’s app doesn’t win the competition, the process of competing has been beneficial, because the city has facilitated interactions between the developers and the people who would use it in the field, which has helped them hone what they are working on. While the app could be ready for testing in two to nine months, the team says that in order to ultimately make it viable, they’ll need commercial interest from a large private company, which is more likely to take place with support from Austin.

Basically, the app competition is a mutually beneficially relationship for the participants who get access to the city’s resources and for the city, which due to the nature of government is not able to focus as much as would be ideal on new ideas and innovation.

“We’re operational folks,” said Ted Lehr, an IT data architect with the city of Austin. “In terms of thinking outside the box and trying to do something edgy, the city, you could say, doesn’t have the mission to do that.”

But an apps competition can help the city reach out to academia and the private sector, both of which do.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.