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Chicago Tries to Build a Better Apps Contest

Apps for Metro Chicago is utilizing data across government levels and is offering developers technical assistance on the correct use of data sets.

by / June 24, 2011
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and new city CIO John Tolva, far right. Photo: David Kidd David Kidd

These days, app contests seem to be a dime a dozen. The standard formula: A government partners with a private-sector sponsor to offer prize money to programmers who develop the most creative and useful apps that integrate public data.

Chicago is taking a somewhat different approach in Apps for Metro Chicago, announced Friday, June 24.

One, besides making use of city of Chicago’s data portal, the contest will also include data sets from Cook County, the state of Illinois and non-government entities such as the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Two, the app developers won’t be on their own. The Metro Chicago Information Center — the data sourcing organization that is managing the competition — will work with the participants on creating quality apps, said Tom Alexander, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press secretary.

“They are providing technical assistance to the apps developers — if people have questions about how data sets should be used, if they’re not sure that they’re using the data sets right, or if they’re looking for some advice on how you navigate between two different data sets,” Alexander said.

Data sets haven’t been used correctly in some previous apps contests held in other big cities, according to Virginia Carlson, the Metro Chicago Information Center’s president.The center is running Apps for Metro Chicago’s website, which will include a live help line for developers to ask questions about the data.

The information center will be in contact with chief data officers of the center’s various partners so if errors show up in the data field or if questions are too complicated for the center to answer, the partner organizations can be alerted to solve the problems, she said.

The app competition’s website also will allow community organizations that don’t make apps themselves to provide ideas for apps that other developers could work on, Carlson said.

“We’re coordinating matching meet-ups where community organizations who don’t speak the language of developers can meet with developers who don’t necessarily speak the language of community organizations — and try to do some real matchmaking around that so that the apps have use cases and context,” Carlson said.

Chicago’s apps competition is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. After a three-round elimination process, final winners will be announced December 12. A $50,000 prize purse is up for grabs.

The competition is also part of Emanuel’s initiative to make city data more available through an open government platform. Earlier this month, Emanuel’s office announced in a press release that it will publicly display online the salaries of every Chicago city employee.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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