New York City, App Developers Win Big in Local Innovation Competition

Application design challenge produces valuable software tools worth millions, helps citizens interact with and use government data to their advantage.

by / February 10, 2010
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

Photo: WayFinder NYC

In the nation's most populous city, jam-packed with some 8 million people, it makes sense that the grand prize of a New York City innovation challenge would go to an application that helps travelers find their way around.

WayFinder NYC, a program that helps users locate the nearest subway station by looking through their camera display on Android phones, won $7,500 in awards in the city's first "NYC BigApps" competition, which was launched last June by the city's Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).

"The applications will generate millions of dollars in economic impact -- a figure that will only increase as more entrepreneurs become aware of the opportunities available here," NYCEDC President Seth W. Pinsky said in a statement.

As more local governments push to improve transparency, competitions like New York City's allow citizens to convert data into shared apps that serve the public and help cities save money. Mirroring other innovation contests like Washington D.C.'s Apps for Democracy, NYC BigApps gave software developers access to more than 170 data sets from 30 city agencies: traffic updates, taxi info, citywide event schedules, property sales, recreational facilities, restaurant inspections, etc. Using at least one data source from the Data Mine (, programmers had to develop innovative tools that the public could use online.

With cash prizes totaling $20,000 as well as a dinner with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg up for grabs, more than 80 entries poured in. Ten winning applications were selected. But in the big picture, the city itself was the real winner, said Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, which powered the competition. Out of the competition came free tools worth more than $4 million that can help citizens navigate the city and its cultural resources, he said.

"The big win," Kessler said, "was when all of the apps were released to the public and people could start using them."

And the Winners Are ...

Best Overall Application

Grand Prize
WayFinder NYC: An application powered by Google's Android operating system that layers map information with GPS data to help people find the best directions to New York City subway and New Jersey PATH stations by holding up their phones in the camera view.


Second Prize
Taxihack: Similar to Yelp, this Web tool allows people use e-mail ( or Twitter (@taxihack) to post comments on individual city taxis and their drivers.

Third Prize
Big Apple Ed: This Web-based guide offers detailed profiles, reviews and information about the city's public schools, including school searches, top 10 lists, analyses, comparison charts, and detailed school profiles.

Popular Choice Award
NYC Way: This iPhone application bundles more than 30 useful NYC resources into one, allowing users to obtain and send information based on their current location.
Video of App:

Other awards were given for the application with the highest potential for commercialization as well as honorable mention

prizes. On top of the cash prizes, Kessler said, software developers receive rewards worth more than money: recognition for their work, media exposure and the satisfaction of helping their city and fellow citizens.

Victor Sima and Steven Lao created WayFinder NYC, which uses "augmented-reality" technology and Google Maps to help people figure out where they're going. Sima handled the coding, while Lao designed the user interface.

"If you live in the city, you pretty much know where you're going," Sima said. "But this helps if you're in an area you don't know too well, especially for people who haven't been here too long."

Sima said they plan to reinvest the prize money into their new app design startup. But right now, they're wrapping up an app similar to WayFinder NYC, except designed for the transportation network in Vancouver, Canada.

"Hopefully we get it out in time for the Olympics," Sima said. "That officially starts in a few days."

New York Connected

In the past year, Bloomberg has announced a series of technology projects -- known as the Connected City Initiative -- which he said represent the "latest steps we're taking to employ technology to serve New Yorkers better."

In addition to the NYC BigApps competition, the city launched 311 Online, a searchable Web portal on, where residents can get information, report problems, check the status of complaints and request services. People from anywhere can call 311 for free using the Internet phone application Skype. Through Twitter, the city can disseminate information about school closures, citywide events and parking specifications. The city also analyzes New York City-related Google searches to customize its online content to improve customer service.

"Finding opportunities to engage our innovative high-tech workforce is integral to the continued growth of the media sector in New York City," Pinsky said last summer. "By making city data available to a broader audience and encouraging our entrepreneurs to create new applications using that information, we leverage existing resources to stimulate investment and create jobs."

The first NYC BigApps competition may be over, but the city wants to make it an annual challenge, so Kessler is already moving forward with NYC BigApps 2.0. In the future, he hopes to provide similar application challenge support for other state and local governments.

"I do believe that challenges are exploding in popularity because of this terrific return on investment," he said, "where you can use social and financial rewards to drive innovation and brand or market your company, government agency or municipality."


Russell Nichols Staff Writer