Washington CTO Chris Willey Discusses Continuation of Apps for Democracy

Washington, D.C., taps citizens for government applications using 311 call center database.

by / September 29, 2009

Chris Willey became Washington, D.C.'s interim chief technology officer in March, filling the vacancy left by Vivek Kundra's appointment as federal CIO. Government Technology spoke to Willey as the district wrapped up its second annual Apps for Democracy contest, which challenges local software developers to create useful applications for government and pays cash prizes for the best ones. Willey discussed the possibility of routinely using the Apps for Democracy model to acquire applications needed by the district government.

Why is it important for Washington, D.C., to continue Apps for Democracy?
We're starting to create a groundswell of interest around social government, around people who want to help with issues that the government faces in the development sphere. Now we suddenly have this community of developers who have done both contests and are kind of looking for the next thing. We're looking to tap into that as a resource. The idea - and this is very new - so I can't talk much about it, but we're saying, "What is a way that we can create a marketplace where that community can respond to the needs of government in ways that are inexpensive to us, but are fruitful for citizens and government agencies?"

So you're looking for ways to formalize that process?
Exactly. Rather than it being a once-a-year thing, now it can be an ongoing thing, and we can leverage the [developer] community to help make the government better.


Video: Chris Willey, interim CTO for Washington D.C., says the District may try to create a new model for acquiring software.

How did this year's Apps for Democracy differ from the first?
We called this one Apps for Democracy Community Edition. The first 30 days we sent out field teams to ask residents two questions: What problems do you think technology can help solve? And what would be the perfect platform to get citizen requests to government? We gave those insights to the developers and said, "Based on this, go and build applications using our open 311 API [application programming interface]," which is a way for applications to directly access our call center database.

How were the results?

We got fewer but much richer submissions. Some of the applications that we got were very interesting - leveraging Facebook; iPhone usage; the ability to take a picture of a problem, like an abandoned house or a pothole. You can take a picture of it, fill out a short form, send it to our 311 call center and track it. We think this is a very powerful way for citizens to interact with government.