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Want to Host an Apps Challenge? Palo Alto, Calif., Wrote the Book

The Bay Area city's Apps Challenge Playbook shares information on planning, marketing and media, and includes a timeline, sample budget and templates cities can use to jumpstart their own apps challenges.

Done right, an apps challenge can bring to life community ideas to solve city problems through civic engagement apps -- something the city of Palo Alto, Calif., did in 2014. 

Still, there are a few points to ponder before hosting one, and a city can't expect to put on an event like the Palo Alto Apps Challenge in one weekend for under $500, said CIO Jonathan Reichental.

Reichental and Palo Alto have learned a thing or two from hosting the city's first Apps Challenge -- a multi-month endeavor culminating in a live broadcast and innovative and functional apps -- and have funneled this knowledge into an Apps Challenge Playbook, downloadable and free to the public.  

The recently released playbook is a resource for anyone wanting to repeat Palo Alto's success by providing a step-by-step guide to planning and running an apps challenge. 

The Apps Challenge followed several other citywide civic innovation events and open data initiatives, including an open data portal. A city sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto has a well rounded open government strategy, Reichental said, and progressive technology policy. The Apps Challenge was a natural next step for the city to provide a forum for people to use open information for the public good. 

"You've got to create incentives and you've got to create forums by which people can learn about city data," he said, "and actually how people can begin to use city data."

Nearly 90 teams entered the Apps Challenge, all with thoughtful and interesting ideas, he said. Then from January through May, the city engaged in six events to attract and nurture talent and ideas, find the best apps, and promote the apps and the challenge, which the city estimates involved more than 5,000 community members.

The 53-page playbook includes background information about the city and its goals, but also commits more than a quarter of its pages to detailing the Apps Challenge events that include calling for entries and selecting judges, selecting and coaching the finalists, and all the parts of the grand finale. A contestant favorite, Reichental said, was a coaching event where finalists received advice from top software engineers.  

Although community recognition and publicity were a part of the package, the top three contestants also won cash prizes. Play Palo Alto, an app that motivates citizens to volunteer through games, won first prize and $3,500, and Enabled City, a map app designed for people with disabilities to find accessible services, won third and $500. Soon after, Enabled City won the cross-state civic technology challenge the 2014 Multi-City Innovation Campaign, of which Palo Alto is also a part. 

Reichental highlighted the second-place app (and $1,000 prize winner), AdoptMeApp, as the product that has been most widely used. Bay Area animal shelters and localities in other countries use the app to improve the adoption of dogs by allowing shelter volunteers to upload animal pictures and descriptors to social media sites. 

"They actually built a successful app that people want to use, and more and more shelters are using it," Reichental said. "It is one of the coolest success stories of our work." 

Each entry was judged on merits of commercial viability, positive impact on the city and the idea's novelty and quality.  

For Palo Alto's competition, a local law firm offered the three winners incorporation services. In addition to engaging the community and tackling city issues, the city made it a priority for the groups within the challenge to create products with commercial and startup potential. 

To find judges to take the 90 entry apps down to 10 finalists, the city looked again to its community; here, Palo Alto's task was made easier with its regional technology talent. The panel included the city's mayor and others from companies like NetScope, Google and Xerox, and also Stanford University.

In Palo Alto's brand of the apps challenge, the city required finalists to build working prototypes. To cater to contestants with no programming experience, Reichental said the city created a link for platforms where contestants could build apps using basic Word and PowerPoint skills. 

Reichental also included a single-page best practices section in the playbook (or, "things you might not have thought of," he said). Among them, he emphasized the importance of taking time to articulate the goals, purpose and format of any apps challenge.   

Then, in addition to specific sections for planning, marketing and media, the remainder (nearly half of the playbook) contains 10 template documents that other cities can use to jumpstart their own apps challenges. 

Among these templates, the playbook includes a timeline beginning months before the challenge announcement and a sample budget with several pages of line items.

Within those templates, Reichental pointed to a seven-page rules document he said could really save another city time. Here, the playbook includes all necessary information for competitors to be active in the competition, and legal language to protect participants and the city. 

The Palo Alto Apps Challenge culminated in a fanfare event -- a one-hour show recorded and live streamed on May 31, coinciding with the 2nd National Day of Civic Hacking sponsored by the White House. Thousands of people online -- mostly Bay Area residents, but some from other cities and countries -- helped choose the three winners. 

Looking back on the Apps Challenge, Reichental said: "In every way in which we measured success, we met or exceeded it." Part of that, he said, was introducing a wholly unique way for people to participate in civic life.  

Since Reichental created the Palo Alto Apps Challenge nearly from scratch, he wanted to create a playbook that would document it all, he said -- provided that the Palo Alto Apps Challenge was a success.

"The idea was to basically use the unique position that Palo Alto has in the world to create a template that other cities could follow," he said, adding that he gets about a handful of inquiries each week regarding last year's Apps Challenge from cities around the country. Now, he has a playbook to pass on and point to. 

"If we can duplicate this once or twice, it's like, 'Well, that was worth it.' Because, in those communities, those people will be more engaged and they will be better communities for it," Reichental said. "And that's worth every minute of it."