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Do Apps for Democracy and Other Contests Create Sustainable Applications?

San Francisco and other cities seek ways to engage software developers and spark long-term innovation.

In the weeks following innovation contests, software developers attain almost celebrity status - at least on a local level. For that brief time, the winners of apps competitions step away from their computer screens to schmooze with mayors and pose for pictures. They field questions about how their winning Web-based apps will change the way citizens use government data.

But this isn't a story about how to make an award-winning application. This is about the aftermath of innovation contests. In other words, what happens to these winning apps when the press stops calling and the cameras stop flashing?

"Just because it wins doesn't mean the jurisdiction actually gets to use it," said Chris Vein, CIO of San Francisco, which held an innovation contest last fall. "The issue becomes whether the city can actually procure it. We're trying to figure out ways to address that."

For the past two years, innovation contests have swept the country in a contagious craze, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, from San Francisco to Portland. Even first lady Michelle Obama got in on the action in March when she launched Apps for Healthy Kids as part of her campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In the age of Government 2.0, these catchy contests thrive due to a simple concept: To improve transparency, governments release hundreds of public-sector data sets, which developers then use to create Web-based applications. The best apps win big prizes. The public reaps the rewards of new apps that help them get around New York's subway system or navigate historical sites in the nation's capital.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for all. But local buzz only lasts for so long, especially when a winning app doesn't always lead to a long-term government contract.

"Conceptually it makes a lot of sense, but in practice, I'd like to see 10 years from now which ones are actually still out there," said Jay Nath, manager of innovation for San Francisco. "Not many I bet."

Sustainability Matters

To keep the momentum going, various cities have made innovation contests an annual event, but in the long run, what do governments get out of them?

Indeed, the contests let city officials advertise transparency efforts and collaborate with citizens to address local issues. But because applications submitted in the competitions don't go through normal procurement channels, Nath said, cities cannot use them as "official" apps. That means the shelf life of the winning app is left in the hands of the developers.

Just ask Brian Sobel, one of the three developers of the website, where users can learn about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by plugging in an address. After winning the top individual prize for the district's first Apps for Democracy contest, he remembers meeting the mayor and attending press conferences. But eventually the hoopla died down. And without any incentives to keep the data up-to-date, he said, the free site has "gone kind of stale."

"We produced something, and we were part of this whole to-do," he said. "That was great. But there was no next step, so we all went back to our gainfully employed ventures. They could have asked us to buy a next phase of the project, but they didn't because they didn't have the infrastructure set up for that."

But for city officials, the instant boost seems to outweigh the underlying barriers. Consider Apps for Democracy, which yielded 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web apps in 30 days - a $2.3 million value that only cost the city $50,000. It's hard to dismiss an estimated 4,000 percent return on investment in one month's time. The contest's success, powered by iStrategyLabs, spurred Apps for Democracy "Community Edition" and spinoffs in other cities.

But in San Francisco, Nath said, city officials are exploring alternative approaches to foster an "ongoing relationship" between the city and developers. On a much smaller scale than Apps for Democracy, San Francisco held its DataSF Contest last fall, a one-day event where the winning app, Tree Data, was an open source Web database for people to track data on trees and plants. It was not deployed publicly.

In future contests, the city hopes to produce more sustainable prizes. "If we're going to have an app contest, the winning application may not just get a prize," Nath said. "We're thinking about it as a way to find the best vendor and provide them with a contract, a way to work with the city for a year."

Even Washington, D.C., which touched off the apps contest craze in 2008, is rethinking its approach. The District will discontinue its annual Apps for Democracy competition, said CTO Bryan Sivak, citing concerns over sustainability and value of apps produced through the contest. Instead, the District is looking for new ways to engage software entrepreneurs and focus their talent on solving core government problems.

"If you look at the applications developed in both of the contests we ran, and actually in many of the contests being run in other states and localities, you get a lot of applications that are designed for devices like smartphones, that aren't necessarily used by the large populations that might need to interact with these services on a regular basis," said Sivak, in an interview earlier this year.

Publicity Power

In New York, the big bucks were already rolling in for Puneet Mehta, who was a senior vice president of technology with a Wall Street company. But his life changed after he and two other key developers created NYC Way, a one-stop iPhone app, where users can make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, book tours and so forth.

The app won the popular choice award for the NYC BigApps competition, which was launched last June by the city's Economic Development Corp. Since then, Mehta said, the app has been downloaded 200,000 times and he receives at least 10 e-mails a day from grateful residents.

"Someone who just moved was having a depressing evening and found that their favorite band was playing on a rooftop nearby," he said. "One person who wrote to us takes a group of disabled people out for outings and uses NYC Way to find directions. These are real people who are telling us how NYC Way has changed their lives."

Fueled by the success, the three developers of NYC Way all quit Wall Street jobs to form My City Way and create city apps full time. They've already launched projects in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

As Mehta's story illustrates, developers can use these innovation contests as a launching pad, even if the cities can't use the winning apps officially. Mehta said he still hopes to connect with the city's tourism department to make NYC Way an official tourism resource, but he doesn't have to bank on that.

Perhaps no winning app received more exposure than D.C. Historic Tours. Developed by Boalt Interactive, it allows users to create custom tours and won an Apps for Democracy award. In 2009, the D.C. Historic Tours site caught the eyes of federal officials because a demonstration route on the site happened to match up with President Barack Obama's inaugural route.

"When the White House saw this really cool map that had all these directions, they linked to us," said Adam Boalt, the company's founder. "After that, it was a huge explosion."

The site traffic has been steady ever since, he said, and sometimes the city reaches out to him for projects. Boalt even collaborated with fellow winner Sobel to create Are You Safe, an iPhone app that determines your safety level in a given area in Washington, D.C., using local crime data. Although D.C. Historic Tours isn't an official city app, Boalt maintains that he didn't build the free site for the prize money or the government.

"It was a practical problem I was having," he said. "I wanted to go around D.C., but I didn't want to ride a Segway or a double-decker bus to do it. But there was nothing available to the general public. I wasn't doing it for the city; I thought it would help people in my situation."