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Apps Contest Winners Need Better Government Data to Sustain Innovative Services

Apps for Democracy and other contests generated by government open data programs need continued support.

by / May 2, 2011

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct some inaccuracies. The original version credited Daniel Odio with creating an application called Park It DC. That application which won an Indie Silver award from Washington, D.C.’s Apps for Democracy contest in 2008 was created by Shaun Farrell. The article also incorrectly said Park It DC had been discontinued. The application is still available.

A popular trend ignited in 2008 when the District of Columbia initiated Apps for Democracy, a contest challenging citizen programmers to use open data sets published by government agencies to make useful apps for the public.  

That year, the district offered $35,000 in cash prizes and got back an estimated $2.3 million in apps. Similar open data programs sprouted in New York; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and others. Some of the programs operated as contests, and other cities just made the data available and promised to showcase the resulting apps. Applications came back to help citizens navigate public transit, find parking spots, locate government monuments — even to help map the safest routes for stumbling from bar to bar at night.

But now, three years after Apps for Democracy’s inception, some experts are questioning how useful the strategy has been.

New York City’s NYC BigApps generated a dazzling winner with NYC Way, an app enabling users to make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, book tours and more. The app’s three developers quit their Wall Street jobs to create MyCityWay, an application aimed at taking NYC Way’s functionality to cities across the country. The team has launched the project in the District of Columbia, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

However, many apps generated by government open data programs cease being updated once hype over their creation subsides. Governments usually lack the interest and resources to take over maintenance of the applications, and developers have trouble making money off them.

Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs, the district’s private-sector partner for Apps for Democracy, said open data activity is stalling in the United States. “You don’t see cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City or any major metropolises jumping and saying, ‘We need to do this now.’ There doesn’t seem to be a stampede movement like there should be,” Corbett said, pointing out that open data initiatives are catching fire in European countries.

Former district CTO Bryan Sivak discontinued the Apps for Democracy contest after its second year due to the app sustainability concern. He agrees with Corbett’s assessment, but only to a point.

“[Open data] has sort of lost some of the luster it had a couple of years ago, but I think that’s typical for any sort of newer idea — new technology, new product or whatever,” Sivak said. “When you first launch something there is a peak of inflated expectation, which inevitably drops into the valley of disinterest.”

However, technology trends that follow that path often are later rejuvenated by innovative newcomers, he added. That could be the case with open data.

Several years have passed since the launch of Apps for Democracy, and it’s worth exploring how developers see the open data movement playing out in the real world. With many of the resulting apps going dormant after the initial hype, how should governments view the value of open data? And what do developers need from government executives to actualize that value?

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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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