Grand prize winners from the three categories will receive $15,000 cash, admission to the Civic Accelerator program, pro bono legal services from BakerHostetler, and discounted workshops from General Assembly. The Judges Award winner won the opportunity to pilot its app on LinkNYC tablets, located throughout the five boroughs.
BigApps is a large and comprehensive civic innovation competition, one filled with workshops, mentorship pairings, and opportunities for collaboration. With a history that dates back eight years, BigApps is older than most other startup collaboration efforts, having first evolved from an incentivized campaign to enhance open data and aspirations to diversify New York’s economy. In recent years, improving government efficiency and the lives of all New Yorkers has become BigApps' primary concern.
And the Judges Are ...
The 2017 NYC BigApps judges were a high-profile group of tech experts, many of which were strongly rooted in New York City’s innovation community.
This year’s competition broke the civic challenges it sought to address into the three categories of transportation, access to knowledge, and community resiliency. Participants were also asked to give special attention to assisting youth, immigrants and seniors. Kate Daly, senior vice president of initiatives at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said before the competition started that specifying these goals was the result of lessons learned throughout BigApps’ history.
“Narrowing the focus has been very successful because it allows people to come together in a much more targeted way,” Daly told Government Technology in March.
The award ceremony marked the culmination of four months and seven workshops, wherein hundreds of participants formed teams, met with mentors, interviewed potential users of their tech, and began testing their ideas. This year’s BigApps garnered 150 eligible submissions, and two rounds of judging preceded the announcement of nine finalists.
The winners were:
“NYC BigApps is about New Yorkers helping New Yorkers," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "Every year, we ask our tech and creative talent to help solve pressing challenges. They step up and consistently exceed our expectations with innovative ideas for New York."
BigApps is hosted at Civic Hall, New York’s collaboration space that houses more than 100 members, as well as the news site Civicist and a nonprofit research and development arm, Civic Hall Labs. The Omidyar Network recently invested $4 million into Civic Hall and Civic Hall Labs, a follow-on from the group’s initial $500,000 investment in Civic Hall in 2014. In late 2016, the group made a deal with a developer and several education groups to build a new, 254,000-square-foot, $250 million center in Manhattan near Union Square, according to Fast Company. Developers are expected to break ground in 2018 and finish construction in 2020.
DollarVan, which participated in the transportation category and won the Judges Award prize, aims to improve awareness of a seemingly underused transportation option in New York City — vans and smaller buses that run less formal routes, often in neighborhoods with less access to the subways. This app was created by a team that met and formed during the BigApps competition itself. The developers of the app initially set out to create a map that could track the routes and real-time locations of dollar vans, before pivoting slightly to take more of an educational tact after the team noticed a massive deficit of dollar van info online.
Jason Lalor, one of the founders of DollarVan, said he has personal experience with this. A Florida native, he went to college in Connecticut before later moving to New York City, where he lived with an aunt. It was Lalor’s aunt who first told him about taking dollar vans to get around, and Lalor said his team’s sense is that most New Yorkers learn of this option the same way — via word of mouth.
Since Lalor has been involved with BigApps, he’s often had to explain what dollar vans are before being able to tell listeners about what his app seeks to accomplish. The team has envisioned a scenario where their app makes life easier for dollar van riders and drivers as well.
“Obviously we want to make the city able to do its job better, better serving these legal vans in these areas, but we also want to make sure this has some actually value for passengers. and also the drivers and operators of these vans who have been doing business in the city at the service for over 30 years,” Lalor said. “I see these guys every day, so if we do something that isn’t serving them, I’m going to hear about it. I definitely want to make sure we look out for them.”
Border Buddy, a runner-up in the community resiliency category, first grew out of Hack the Ban, an event held in February to resist President Trump’s travel ban. It’s an app that developers compare to something called a dead man’s switch, a failsafe mechanism often used by train operators to prevent against lethal accidents if the user is incapacitated.
The way Border Buddy functions is simple: the app tracks registrants’ flight arrival info. If a user makes it through customs without being detained, they send Border Buddy a text to tell them they’re OK. If, however, Border Buddy does not hear from them, they send a reminder after two hours. If there’s no response, a team of lawyers with relevant experience goes to work giving them legal assistance.
Andrew Gionfriddo, one of the Border Buddy developers, said they are partnering with CLEAR, or Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, a legal team from the City University of New York School of Law, which has been doing related work since 2009. While the impetus for Border Buddy was Trump’s travel ban, Gionfriddo said the tech and legal assistance infrastructure the team is developing can be used to aid land crossings, citizens nervous about their safety during protests, or anyone else who fears mistaken or unlawful detainment and legal hangups.
“Even if the travel ban stops, people will still be caught up while travelling into the country,” Gionfriddo said. “It’s definitely in the forefront of the political climate for the moment, but I think down the line it will still be a problem whether it’s in the public eye or not.”
Kurtin, which competed in the knowledge category, is an app that seeks to improve the university graduation rates of students from minority communities. The app provides information and other tools that go beyond academics to give perspective students a better idea of what life and culture is like at the schools where they are considering enrolling.
Mike Burns, one of the creators of Kurtin, said the idea for it was born while he was working in diversity admissions at West Point, where he also did his undergrad. In that capacity, Burns became well aware that while university enrollment rates for minorities have risen, much remains to be desired when it comes to graduation rates. The topic is a personal one for Burns, who struggled at times during his own college experience.
“It was very very tough for me,” Burns said. “I was almost one of those statistics that dropped out.”
Kurtin uses available statistics, collecting them in aggregate and presenting them in a way that’s easy for users to access. It also goes beyond that, reaching out to student groups on campus to get information directly from them, even allowing them to live stream things like finals week prep and football game tailgates. Kurtin’s team has had much success reaching out to student groups, including fraternities and sororities made up of mostly minority students, who Burns said are eager to help because they’ve seen so many of their own friends enroll before dropping out.
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.