Illinois launched a new program to promote open data that officials hope will spread innovation throughout the state, Gov. Pat Quinn announced on Oct. 20. The program, called the Illinois Open Technology Challenge, will encourage local developers to find uses for data offered through the state's open data platform by offering at least $75,000 in prizes. It also will encourage government to supply data by engaging local developers. The program will begin as a pilot in Belleville, Champaign, Rockford and Chicago’s south suburbs.

“We live in a knowledge economy that is driven by access to information and new ideas,” Quinn said in a press release. “The Illinois Open Technology Challenge will not only increase transparency at the local level by giving the public access to government data, it will give entrepreneurs the chance to develop new, innovative applications for the data that will create jobs and make a positive impact.”

The challenge is part of Illinois’ overall goal of promoting open data. Quinn's executive order to establish an “open operating standard” mandated the establishment of protocols for making open data available and establishing cloud services for the state.

Winners of the challenge will be announced in early 2013, and the top winner of the competition will receive an additional prize that has not yet been revealed. Winners of similar past competitions such as 2011’s Apps for Metro Chicago Illinois competition produced applications such as iFindit, which helps users find data about food, housing and medical care available to homeless people, and OkCopay, a directory of affordable medical care providers for people without insurance.

Challenges like the one in 2011 and the Illinois Open Technology Challenge are stepping stones toward a bigger goal for government. There's a lot of value to having a transparent government and the purpose of this challenge is to get communities to begin participating in the realization of that goal, said Mark Harris, president and CEO of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC).

“There’s a lot of value in connecting government and these data sets with the entrepreneurial community — developers that can use data to create innovative applications to really improve government processes,” Harris said.

One of the main goals of this challenge is to get Illinois to examine how data is used and find new ways to increase the efficiency of government.

By engaging governments, local universities, nonprofits and the entrepreneurial world, this program can “create a conversation amongst those four different audiences that will yield some very creative and innovative outcomes,” Harris said. “We want to make sure we're on the cutting edge and this leads to new companies, new applications, new jobs and economic development. It's really a shift in government being more accessible and also more creative about how this data can be enhanced.”

The $75,000 prize pool, Harris said, is meant to get the attention of developers and engage people, but it also demonstrates the backing the project has. The challenge is being supported by the Chicago Community Trust, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Google, the Motorola Mobility Foundation and Comcast.

“To run this, you need an engaged community,” Harris said. And that's why his organization hand-selected the four pilot communities. Projects like these need innovative mayors and other public officials who are inclined to welcome and foster challenge programs in order for them to succeed. And if this project does well, Harris said, the rest of the state's local governments will be more likely to engage their communities in similar ways.

The Illinois Open Technology Challenge is an initiative of the Illinois Innovation Council, which was created by Quinn in February 2011, and is being led by ISTC.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com