Creative application contests: Engaging developers in the public sphere

(Originally written and posted at www.wikinomics.com)

Last November, Vivek Kundra, current CIO of the USA and former CTO of DC, launched Apps for Democracy, a contest designed to crowdsource the best public sector data-mashup applications from private developers. The top submissions from the contest, such as ilive.at and DC Historic Tours, demonstrated the power of citizen-driven idea sourcing and application-building. Since the success of Apps for Democracy, two new contests have taken place.

At noon yesterday, the Sunlight Foundation announced the winners from the Apps for America contest. The top prize (which came with a $15 000 reward) went to the makers of Filibusted.us, a web-based application that sheds light on which Senators have been filibustering legislation in the US Senate. There were 16 prize winners in total, and I definately recommend checking out the winners for yourself (my favorite is Legistalker.org).

Next came the recently-launched INCA – the Innovative and Creative Application Contest, based out of Belgium. This contest is open for anyone to submit an application, be it a website, widget, google mashup or mobile application, to be used by Flemish citizens to help solve “collective and social problems.” Prizes will be awarded to the ten best submissions, with the top developer receiving a prize of 20 000 Euros (about $25 ooo USD). Deadline for submission is April 27th.

With INCA, Apps for America and last November’s Apps for Democracy, we’re starting to see a very exciting trend in the Gov 2.0 space: software developers and programmers engaging in social causes and public sector development. Can these contests help spur the creation of new services along the lines of fixmystreet or transparency tools like opencongress? After speaking with Sunlight’s John Wonderlich and Apps for Democracy architect Peter Corbett over the past two weeks, I’m convinced that they can.

The key to improving on these contest models is to create, in the words of Peter Corbett, a “Cradle-to-Grave” strategy to promote citizen-driven innovation in the public sector. Corbett’s Cradle-to-Grave approach seeks an 8-step process for future application contests:

1. Problem Sourcing: Idea-sourcing, in this case, will work best when a specific problem/social issue is being targeted (such as crime, traffic congestions, etc.)

2. Open Data: A key to the success of Apps for Democracy was that Vivek Kundra made DC’s government data openly available with over 240 data feeds.

3. Government Sponsorship: To support the idea-sourcing contest. This was done in DC’s Apps initiative.

4. Establish Contest Framework: Well-constructed in all three above examples.

5. Launch and Run the Contest: Also well-done in the three above-cited cases.

6. Award: All three contests had multiple award winners (not just financial – the recognition is probably a more powerful incentive to participation).

7. Absorption by Government: For the best applications to live on after the contest and provide real value to the public sector, they need to be adopted, maintained, and ideally, improved upon. This represents a murky point, and an area where the initial contests haven’t found a working model. It’s unclear how this is best handled. Should the government provide ongoing grants for development of applications? Should government internalize the best applications?

8. Commercialization: Lastly, Corbett believes that the applications need to somehow become commercialized, although it’s unclear whether or not government should be involved. Could iLive.at or DCHistoricTours have a business model, wherein they could be licensed to other cities to use? Another possibility might be a sponsorship arrangement with a private company.

Overall, citizen-driven idea sourcing and app creation represents a means of maximizing web 2.0 potential in public sector development. The room for improvement is massive – outside of DC, for example, very few governments have truly open data (Corbett’s 2nd step). But even if we’re still years away from widespread adoption of this model, at least we have the model (or rather, a model), with forward-thinking governments seeing the merits and beginning to move in this direction.

If you’re really into this space, there’s a major development coming over the horizon – but that’s a whole other blog post in itself.

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