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NYC BigApps Winners Poised to Improve New York

Seven winners grab honors for civic tech solutions from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

by / September 19, 2014
NYC BigApps winners celebrate their win with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sept. 16. Twitter/@BilldeBlasio

One winner intends to carve an online corner for teacher collaboration, another to map community parks, another to secure warmth for low-income homes, and the last, to assist job hunters.

The charitable ambitions belong to the 2014 New York City BigApps Challenge and its four $20,000 winners announced Sept. 16 at the BRIC Arts Media House in Brooklyn. The winners secured the top positions after submitting apps that could aid the city’s urban challenges by harnessing public and private data.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared prize winners after live judging from an expert panel of technologists and government officials who, among others, included Google CIO Ben Fried and the city’s recently hired CTO, Minerva Tantoco.

The four winners came from a list of 20 finalists identified from a previous online vote that had more than 120 competitors.

Speaking at the podium, de Blasio observed the NYC apps as pioneering tools that make inroads where traditional government services typically can’t.

“This gathering celebrates the power of technology to transform our world, to transform our city, to do such extraordinary good in ways that were not imaginable just a short time ago,” de Blasio said in a release. “That's what the BigApps competition is all about.”

Four $20,000 grand prizes were awarded to apps that answered tangible problems in the following categories: city living conditions, employment, education and recreation. The themes were summarized into the respective categories of live, work, learn and play. Officials garnished the challenge with five smaller awards of $5,000 each for best mobile app, Web app, data tool, connected device and game. (See winners here.)

Paul Henderson and his app CourseKicker secured the top spot for the learn category. Henderson created a Web platform for K-12 teachers to share lesson plans and network. The site, much like a Facebook for teachers, swaps posts for lesson plans and directs social activity toward idea sharing, best practice collaboration and curriculum development.

In an interview with Government Technology, Henderson said he’d left a 25-year career as a banker in Europe to launch the app with his wife, who is a teacher. Long-term plans are to improve the app’s mobile usage for multiple devices and monetize it with a tiered freemium-to-premium business model to subsidize its continued growth.

Though the app was launched in New York City, Henderson said expectations are to continue expansion as teachers use the app across the Web.

“We created CourseKicker to help teachers,” Henderson said “We’re in the business of providing tools for teachers so they can share best practices and collaborate.”

To assist low-income tenants living in sub-standard heating conditions and landlords attempting to ensure quality heating, the app Heat Seek NYC represented the live category. Using affordable heat sensors placed in homes, the app detects heating violations in real time and sends notifications once temperatures drop to sub-standard levels. The app is meant to increase landlord accountability and ensure safe living areas for residents.

Jarryd Hammel, Heat Seek’s business development manager, said the app came about after students at New York’s Flatiron Web development school — and now Heat Seek team members — experimented with the sensors and considered possible applications. A social worker and parent to a team member suggested they leverage sensors to aid those coping with poor living conditions. The suggestion hit home, and a few months later, resulted in the app, which records temperatures hourly from linked sensors. Heat Seek NYC presently hosts a Kickstarter campaign hoped to generate $50,000 to pay for 1,000 donated smart sensors this winter.

Currently, the campaign has accumulated nearly $15,000 and Hammel said all of the BigApp winnings — the $20,000 grand prize and $5,000 for best connected device — will be donated to the fund.

Tom Hunter, the app's marketing manager, said the tool will benefit both tenants and owners. “We're trying to help the city government do its job better, we're trying to help landlords comply, find heating efficiencies and help tenants get their heat turned back on,” he said. “Heat is a ubiquitous need and you don't realize it's there until it's not.”

Other winners such as the blue-collar job finder NYC Hired, which won in the work category, and the park search app Explore NYC Parks, which won for play, were equally notable in their ingenuity.

Creators of Explore NYC Parks Andrew Glass and Leigh Mignogna mapped all of the 1,700-plus parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities inside New York’s five boroughs. Parks can be searched by nearest address, event types and amenities such as basketball courts, soccer fields, cycling tracks, marinas and more. The app also displays a suggested site to visit via its “take me on an adventure” button.  

Glass envisioned the app after having trouble searching for a basketball court one day. Now, he said he’s not only identified the best courts but is in talks with other cities to provide the service.

“We think that increasing the efficiency and usership of how people use parks has a huge impact on so many things,” Glass said. “The win is such an honor just to be chosen among so many other good candidates.”

Thomas McCreery, creator of NYC Hired, was not immediately available for comment. However, he expressed gratitude for the award in a prepared statement in which he said participation has secured community partnerships to pilot the job finding and analysis app soon.

"We are grateful to BigApps for believing in our mission and recognizing the need for a website focused on helping New Yorkers find jobs regardless of their skill level or work experience,” McCreery said.

Below is a full listing with descriptions and links to the 2014 winners as provided by city officials. Additional details can be found on the NYC BigApps Challenge website.

Grand Prize Winners: $20,000

Category: Live

Heat Seek NYC delivers objective heating data that will empower the justice system to tackle a number of heating complaints that are made to 311 every winter.

Category: Work helps low-income New Yorkers find job opportunities more quickly and easily.

Category: Learn

CourseKicker is an online professional learning network that allows teachers to connect, collaborate and share best practices with colleagues beyond their own schools, anywhere in the world.

Category: Play

Explore NYC Parks makes New York a better place to live by making parks easier to explore, discover and enjoy.

Best of Winners: $5,000

Best Connected Device

Heat Seek NYC delivers objective heating data that will empower the justice system to tackle a number of heating complaints that are made to 311 every winter.

Best Mobile App

Mind My Business gives shopkeepers peace of mind by helping local businesses manage their digital data and strengthen their bottom line.

Best Web App

Dream See Do enables students and adults to explore a range of career possibilities and take related experiential challenges with New York City-based mentors.

Best Game

PIPs leverages the power of points, smart tools and games to record and reward daily life choices that benefit environmental, community and personal health.

Best Data Tool

Explore NYC Parks makes New York a better place to live by making parks easier to explore, discover and enjoy.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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