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47 Applications in 30 Days for $50K

How city governments can leverage and involve citizens to sometimes accomplish the impossible.

Completing 47 applications in 30 days would be tantamount to mission impossible for almost any IT organization, much less for a large city like Washington, D.C., which, like most cities, has a procurement process designed to protect public funds, not to break speed records. Yet, that's what the district just accomplished and with a budget of only $50K.

The achievement was announced by Washington's Mayor Adrian M. Fenty at a press conference today held with City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra.

"The chief technology officer said what Kennedy said back in the 60's -- that government doesn't have all the best ideas, the government can't do it all" said Fenty, "and like Kennedy the CTO said, 'let's go to the private sector, let's go to our citizens to get some of the best ideas we can get and then let's bring them back into government so we can do a better job for the people.'"

The Plan

The plan: sponsor a contest to create Web applications that use the city's live data feeds to provide better service to the public and improved transparency about how D.C. does business.

"My administration is committed to making government more accessible and more transparent, and through this contest we've gotten help from the most talented developers," said Fenty. "I'm delighted with the responses. With these innovative applications, we can put government literally in the hands of the people. On the scale of how governments have traditionally done things, this is not an expensive program: 50 thousand dollars total and we estimate that we will save the district millions of dollars in program development costs."

Like many cities, Washington, D.C., collects a vast amount of data and metrics about its people and operations including both realtime (or near realtime) data as well as relatively static information such as neighborhood demographics. Much of that information is now available to the public through more than 200 data feeds accessed through the Office of the Chief Technology Officer's Web site.

Kundra's idea was to use a competition to encourage developers to use those feeds to create applications for the public good.

"We are rethinking the way we look at 'We the People,'" said Kundra. "The Fenty administration is approaching citizens not as 'subjects' but as co-creators of government. So, by democratizing data and putting it in the public domain and challenging people to come up with the best ideas and helping us to rethink how we run government operations, we've been able to do what would have cost millions of dollars. But the greater part here is the democratization of public data and the engagement of citizens and the private sector to help drive innovation and leverage the power of technology."

The results for the Applications for Democracy contest were impressive. Announced only a month ago, 47 applications were submitted, many in the last 48 hours leading up to the contest deadline..

The contest recognized gold, silver and bronze winners and Fenty announced the two gold prize winners. The first gives users the ability to create customized tours of historic D.C. or to access a library or existing tours. The second site lets users enter a D.C. address to immediately see graphical and text information about the demographics of the neighborhood, the nearest grocery store, bank and even local crime statistics.

The submitted applications use many of the latest Web technologies to combine, or "mashup" information from various city sources and present the data graphically or geographically placed on an interactive city

Dan Tangherlini, the city administrator, pointed out that the contest came at a perfect time for D.C. due to the challenge that D.C. faces -- the fiscal constraints faced by every municipality today -- as well as the unique opportunity Washington, D.C., faces with the upcoming inauguration.

"We are going to have perhaps millions of our best friends and close relatives and fellow citizens come to this city," said Tangherlini. "[This contest has resulted in] a number of applications that are going to make their visit interesting, more fun and more rewarding."

Although the current "Applications for Democracy" contest is over, its effects are likely to live on for some time -- both in the new applications now available to D.C. residents and in the possibilities it opened with its new take on how city governments can leverage and involve citizens to sometimes accomplish the impossible.

David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.
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