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In the weeks following innovation contests, software developers attain almost celebrity status - at least on a local level. For that brief time, the winners of apps competitions step away from their computer screens to schmooze with mayors and pose for pictures. They field questions about how their winning Web-based apps will change the way citizens use government data.

But this isn't a story about how to make an award-winning application. This is about the aftermath of innovation contests. In other words, what happens to these winning apps when the press stops calling and the cameras stop flashing?

"Just because it wins doesn't mean the jurisdiction actually gets to use it," said Chris Vein, CIO of San Francisco, which held an innovation contest last fall. "The issue becomes whether the city can actually procure it. We're trying to figure out ways to address that."

For the past two years, innovation contests have swept the country in a contagious craze, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, from San Francisco to Portland. Even first lady Michelle Obama got in on the action in March when she launched Apps for Healthy Kids as part of her campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In the age of Government 2.0, these catchy contests thrive due to a simple concept: To improve transparency, governments release hundreds of public-sector data sets, which developers then use to create Web-based applications. The best apps win big prizes. The public reaps the rewards of new apps that help them get around New York's subway system or navigate historical sites in the nation's capital.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for all. But local buzz only lasts for so long, especially when a winning app doesn't always lead to a long-term government contract.

"Conceptually it makes a lot of sense, but in practice, I'd like to see 10 years from now which ones are actually still out there," said Jay Nath, manager of innovation for San Francisco. "Not many I bet."

Sustainability Matters

To keep the momentum going, various cities have made innovation contests an annual event, but in the long run, what do governments get out of them?

Indeed, the contests let city officials advertise transparency efforts and collaborate with citizens to address local issues. But because applications submitted in the competitions don't go through normal procurement channels, Nath said, cities cannot use them as "official" apps. That means the shelf life of the winning app is left in the hands of the developers.

Just ask Brian Sobel, one of the three developers of the website, where users can learn about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by plugging in an address. After winning the top individual prize for the district's first Apps for Democracy contest, he remembers meeting the mayor and attending press conferences. But eventually the hoopla died down. And without any incentives to keep the data up-to-date, he said, the free site has "gone kind of stale."

"We produced something, and we were part of this whole to-do," he said. "That was great. But there was no next step, so we all went back to our gainfully employed ventures. They could have asked us to buy a next phase of the project, but they didn't because they didn't have the infrastructure set up for that."

But for city officials, the instant boost seems to outweigh the underlying barriers. Consider Apps for Democracy, which yielded 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web apps in 30 days - a $2.3 million value that only cost the city $50,000. It's hard to dismiss an estimated 4,000 percent return on investment in one month's time. The contest's success, powered by iStrategyLabs, spurred Apps for Democracy "Community Edition" and spinoffs in other cities.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer