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Multi-City Innovation Campaign Improves Upon Traditional Hackathon

Twenty-five localities and one accelerator have launched a $220,000 campaign to seed civic health apps for residents, with the ultimate goal of taking good ideas and giving them a platform to scale up and be sustainable as a solution.

In search of innovative tech and ideas surrounding community health, a group of 25 cities, states and counties has launched a $220,000 campaign -- that intends to do more than simply launch health-related apps.

In its second year, the 2015 Multi-City Innovation Campaign (MCIC) will award up to $120,000 for civic tech prototypes and concepts that suit individual communities, and each region will award $5,000 for winning submissions deployed in their areas. Jumpstart Foundry, a health-care accelerator in Nashville, Tenn., will allow one of the finalists to compete for a spot in its 14-week startup program, from May to August, with $100,000 in seed funding going to its selected companies, in exchange for 7.5 percent equity. Submissions are due April 10.

“We believe that this collaborative approach across jurisdictions is kind of the next frontier. We wanted to experiment with scalability and sustainability,” said Nashville Co-Chief Innovation Officer and MCIC co-organizer Yiaway Yeh, adding that the idea for the MCIC came from the desire to improve upon the traditional hackathon.

The event’s founding cities -- Nashville; Boston; Raleigh, N.C.; and Palo Alto, Calif. -- wanted to ensure that the apps created by civic hackers at weekend hackathons weren’t lost for lack of financial or administrative support. Similarly, they saw a need to incentivize potential government entrepreneurs with a larger market, one that channeled app usage to a wider ecosystem of localities yet also fell just below procurement expenditure thresholds — cities often limited by how much money can be spent on product or service before an RFP process is started.

“We all agreed that we wanted to try something that helped provide a runway for these potentially impactful technologies to have a chance in our communities,” Yeh said.

In 2014, the competition yielded six finalist solutions for community development, analytics and visualization, with winning first prize for its crowdsourced maps of wheelchair compliant buildings. In 2015, Yeh said, city partners have increased dramatically due to 2014’s success and for the affordable table stakes for participation. The $5,000 city partnership fee accommodates municipalities of all sizes, from the moderately sized city of Somerville, Mass., at about 78,800 residents, to metropolises like Philadelphia with a population of more than 315,000.

Adding to the MCIC’s national exposure, open data company Socrata and GIS mapping company ESRI have pledged support. They’re joined by Code for America, a civic tech group, and the National League of Cities, a community advocacy organization. Yeh said these national partners are utilizing their networks and platforms to enhance the campaign’s footprint.

“They really had the national platforms and perspectives to bring together these 25 [jurisdictions] to try this experiment more broadly,” Yeh said.

Adam Martin, manager of Raleigh’s open data program, said the event has kindled interest from both the city and civic technologists who see it as a potentially transformative vehicle for coding projects. Martin doubles as a captain in a Code for America Brigade in Durham, N.C., and said some technologists in the civic tech group see the competition as a motivator, not only to create new apps, but to double down on current endeavors.

“It’s not just about doing something completely new in the universe” Martin said. “It’s really about taking good ideas and giving them a platform to scale up and be sustainable as a solution.”

Like most entrepreneurial pursuits, sustainability in civic tech is tied to supporting revenue sources. A difficulty for many entrepreneurs in government is understanding whether products and services have a sufficient customer base to maintain a startup’s growth. As MCIC expands its city, county and state partnerships, Martin said he hopes the network is able to enlarge the ecosystem for civic developers.

“What we’re really trying to do with the MCIC is to create some incentives for people who are talented  — who might be looking at innovation projects as a side project or fun hobby — and really get them to thinking seriously about solving city problems for a business.”

Similar to the previous year, apps are likely to rely heavily on open data portals. According to the MCIC site, app examples include those that assist with emergency care for high-frequency users, monitor urban pollution, or deal with medical cost transparency, or pedestrian and bike-safety.

Following the April 10 submission deadline, finalists will be announced on April 23 and demo their latest prototypes on June 6. The winning apps and ideas are slated for an announcement on June 22 with deployment in cities beginning in July.

Additional details about the MCIC and submission rules can be found here and a map of participating cities is below.

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