In cities across the country, government officials are searching for ways to make meaningful data available and use the intelligence to solve social problems. Agencies are leveraging contests like NYC BigApps 2.0, which is scheduled to announce its winners in March. Though contests are an effective tool, experts warn that governments should focus on long-term solutions.

One of the leading apps contest creators, ChallengePost, has proved that apps contests can be a good investment. Brandon Kessler, founder and CEO of ChallengePost points to New York as a shining example.

“More than $4 million in software was created from just $50,000 in prizes,” Kessler said. “These types of challenges galvanize the public and offer a terrific and unprecedented return on investment that spurs economic development.”

But the success of these competitions hinges on getting the right people interested. Using cash prizes may be a good way to attract talented developers, but some prominent members of the open source community think throwing money at the problem means misunderstanding the spirit of open source. They think there could be a better alternative.

Creating Incentives

“The prize money is not the biggest motivation,” Kessler said. “We believe people are not just motivated by money but by exposure, recognition, intellectual spirit and altruism, which is why a pretty small prize pool is so effective.

Andy Wallace, a software developer living in Portland, Ore., agrees. Wallace is the creator of PDX Bus, a free application that displays arrival times for buses and trains in Portland. With an estimated 20,000 users , it’s Portland’s most popular open data application. Wallace’s application was awarded “Best in Show” and “Most Appealing” by CivicApps.org, Portland’s attempt at spurring open data application development.

“I did it as a hobby and I didn’t want to charge for it because I’d have to do customer support,” Wallace said. “Expectations are much higher when you charge for something.”

Wallace provides the application free of charge because he doesn’t want money to get in the way of his hobby. He likes developing PDX Bus. “It was the recognition, I think,” Wallace said. “I was really pleased that people did like it and are using it.”

Wallace isn’t an anomaly. There are talented developers all over the country who are willing to create great things for no money given the right conditions. In San Francisco, a group of designers and coders called Stamen Design work on commercial projects as well as public projects, including Oakland Crimespotting and San Francisco Crimespotting. The two applications offer explorable maps of weekly updated crime data presented in a way that is visually attractive and easy to understand.

Stamen Design receives no money from San Francisco to develop the two applications. So why is a for-profit design firm busting its hump for the city?

Michal Migurski, who joined Stamen Design in 2003, said he works on Crimespotting out of a sense of civic responsibility. Shawn Allen, who joined the firm in 2006 agreed.

“It’s some sense of civic pride in San Francisco and being able to provide public service without actually having to embed myself in government,” Allen said.

And then there’s the recognition. Stamen Design has received publicity from creating the two popular crime applications and now the firm advises San Francisco in the development of application programming interfaces.

Working on data visualization and collaborating with the city allowed the firm to keep its finger on the pulse of open source. In 2010, the company created CityTracking, an application that allows users to turn data into embeddable visualizations in the form of images and videos. For this creation, the firm was awarded $400,000 by the Knight Foundation as part of the Knight News Challenge.

So when Migurski said they haven’t been paid a dime to make Crimespotting for San Francisco, technically he’s right. But there can be huge incentives to provide free applications to the public. Developers like Migurski and Allen know this.

Exploring Alternatives

Neil Barry, a member of Seattle’s open data team, said Seattle has been considering holding an application contest in the next few years. But Barry isn’t convinced cash prizes are the best approach. His team is looking for alternatives.

Seattle isn’t alone. The company that first started application contests, iStrategyLabs, isn’t doing them anymore, despite success with projects like Apps 4 Africa and Apps for Democracy. In fact, Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs, said he’s turned down more than 50 requests from various organizations and government agencies to conduct apps contests. Corbett explained that it doesn’t make sense for his company to act as a contractor in this capacity when agencies should be forming the infrastructure necessary to do the contests themselves.

“That’s not what’s good for citizens,” Corbett said. “It’s not the reason I got into this business.”

Corbett created a guide that helps organizations interested in creating their own application contests. “We call it open innovation,” Corbett said. “We invented something and now we’re opening it to everyone.”

If people need help or have questions about how to run an app contest, Corbett said he’s more than happy to give people advice, but his company is out of the contest business.

“The most important thing to think about is the sustainability of apps, getting people involved in the development process and providing a continuing incentive for developers to do so,” Corbett said. “What they’re creating is a community of developers that are passionate about helping their communities.”

Creating Communities

Apps contests generate public interest and produce useful applications, but they don’t necessarily create lasting communities. Hosting an apps contest and then giving developers no reason to continue participating is not unlike eating the goose that lays the golden eggs.

With this is mind, a project called Code for America is starting its first round of community activism this year, focusing on Boston; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and Seattle. Code for America sends five researchers, coders and planners into cities to interview community leaders, block captains and average joes about problems they face, and then the programmers develop software solutions based on the findings.

Code for America aims to create lasting relationships between community leaders and government officials, said Abhi Nemani, the organization’s director of strategy and communications.

“It’s a fact of life,” Nemani said. “Almost all cities are facing budget crises now and they’re finding they need to change the way they provide services. This is a great way to be more strategic and smart about how they allocate funds.”

Code for America fellows began research in their respective cities early February and will continue work on their projects throughout the year. Code for America is recruiting cities for 2012 until March 1 this year. In order to make the project available to cities with smaller budgets, it is also offering a “lite” version that sends three fellows to their city instead of five.

One of the Philadelphia fellows, Matt Lewis, is taking a year off from his career to work on Code for America. “A lot of us are interested in making our city governments work better. It was too good of an opportunity to turn down,” Lewis said.

Looking Forward

Apps contests shouldn’t be counted out, though. The first NYC BigApps contest last year yielded more than 80 applications, like WayFinder NYC, an application that helps people find public transportation by using the phone’s camera; Taxihack, an application that allows people to rate and comment on taxis and their drivers; and Big Apple Ed, a guide to New York’s schools that provides in-depth analysis and research tools.

Contests also have the recognition factor. Among the judging panel of NYC BigApps 2.0 are names like Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and Foursquare CEO Naveen Selvadurai.

But most experts agree that fostering long-term relationships between government and the people is fundamentally better than hit-and-run contests. Perhaps a marriage between the two will prove the best solution.

Colin Wood 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 and on Google+.