The Pros and Cons of Government App Contests

Justin Houk
May. 20 2011, 08:00AM EDT

Panelists and presenters at last week's Open Gov West 2011 conference in Portland, Oregon tackled the topic of government sponsored app contests. Attendees asserted that not all app contests are designed the same way and there are different benefits and drawbacks with each kind. An overarching issue seemed to be the value returned to the public on government investment in app contests. Governments are looking for the best way to offer services to the public in the face of budget cuts and are eyeing citizen generated apps.

Some great points came from the How to Build a Better Apps Contest panel. Amber Case alludes to that panel discussion and expands on it in her day two keynot embeded in the video above (starting at about 3:00). The panel, moderated by Socrata CEO Kevin Merrit, was composed of Case, Skip Newberry, David Wrate and Ram Arumugam. The panelists made distinctions between long form contests and shorter hackathons, as well as open vs focused contest formats.

Open App Contests

Long form contests tend to happen over weeks and months and are sponsored by larger government organizations. Open long form application contests usually only have requirements for the data sources or ways applications can be licensed. Developers are free to choose the type of application and intended audience. Some good examples of open apps contests are:

The panelists seemed to have the most divergent views on these types of contests. According to Ram Arumugam many of the apps produced tend to be very similar to each other and are likely to have been created anyway. As an example he used the winners of NYC BigApps and NYC BigApps 2.0 contests. In both cases the winners were different companies that produced transit apps. He asked the audience "do we really need more transit apps paid for by taxpayers?" It must be noted that Arumugam was the only one on the panel arguing against apps contests. He showed great poise and helped make the panel one of the best that I attended.

NYC Big Apps

Other panelists acknowledged that open contests carried slightly more risk but that the benefits can be worth it. Portland's Skip Newberry noted that these types of contests have value as a way to stimulate the local tech sector and spur economic growth. His point tends to agree with the notion that contests like NYC BigApps 2.0 have evolved beyond simply being about free apps and are also about stimulating job growth through training, networking, and exposure. Apps are part of the package but not the only thing.

Focused App Contests

Focused contests are more closely tied to a specific government project or agency mission. These contests are trying to offer incentives for apps and audiences that might go unnoticed in open contests. Focused contests seem to offer greater value because they can be linked more easily to traditional government roles and responsibilities. Some examples of focused contests:

  • The CDC Flu App Challenge is promoting apps that raise awareness of influenza and/or educate consumers on ways to prevent and treat the flu.
  • Apps for Communities is a contest sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the FCC that is aimed at underserved populations and promoting broadband access in rural communities nationwide.

For the most part the consensus on the panel and throughout the OGW11 conference seemed to be that focused application contests have more potential for government agencies in tight times. Ram Arumugam acknowledged that some of his issues might be addressed by this type of event. Amber Case agreed that in her experience focused events lead to more viable and sustainable applications.

Hackathons and One Day contests

Some apps contests (known in the tech community as hackathons) last around 24 hours and bring a large group of enthusiastic developers together to code as teams or individuals. These events are more likely to be sponsored jointly between commercial vendors and governments when prizes are offered at all. Prizes are not a necessary prerequisite in some communities as long as people from government support and participate in the event. Some examples of civic and government sponsored hackathons:

  • The Cross Gov Apps Contest hosted at the ogw11 event and sponsored by Socrata, Knowledge As Power, and Tropo focused on creating apps that span multiple government datasets and physical communities. Emphasis was also placed on application replicability between governments. See the presentations by the participants and winners in the embeded video below (starts at 8:55) and read about the applications in the blog post by Johnny Diggz of Tropo.
  • The CivicApps Mobile Apps for Education Hackathon is a Joint project between Webvisions and the Portland Mayors Office. Participants will work with educators and officials to discover what kinds of problems can be solved through mobile apps durring a short unconference. They will then code into the wee hours to see if they can come up with solutions matching the needs.

Hackathons seem to combine many of the same characteristics of long form apps contests. They can be completely open or more focused depending on the planners needs. As Amber Case mentioned in her keynote and during the OGW11 apps contest panel, they are not nearly as likely to produce an application that is viable in the long term. What they seem to excel at is building a civic minded community of activists. There is also, according to Amber, something magical about the thought process produced when you have to come up with a solution under pressure during short events.

How do Governments Know if They are on the Right Path?

Attendees at OGW11 did a great job of articulating some of the issues around government sponsored apps contests. They seized the idea that we need more discussion to flesh out such events. If you are working in government and are considering creating value for the public though an apps contest it's pretty important to consider what your resources and goals are. If your agency is working with budget constraints you might consider a very focused contest that mashes with your main policy directives. If your main policy directive is to stimulate the economy around the tech sector or simply promote newly opened data you might lean towards a more open contest. Hackathons can be an excellent way to bring people together.

In short the right path is the one where careful thought is given and a smart decision is made (as corny as that sounds). There is also value in thinking about it more as a community building process than a technology building one from the very beginning.

Justin Houk

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@David_R8 Thank you for the comment and your participation on the panel. Panels like this one are pretty important as most of this is new territory.

Thanks for this Justin! Wanted to identify that Apps 4 Climate Action was the apps contest we held in British Columbia. It was a focused (climate action), long-term (March - Sept) contest.

The Province learned a tremendous amount and definitely feel it was a success. The contest also won a Silver award for Leadership from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

Oh, it was also a lot of fun and we got to meet a huge number of great folks!

[...] The BigApps 1.0 and 2.0 contests let developers use their imaginations to see what they could create for the citizens of the Big Apple. They certainly created some interesting and useful apps, however, New York city is a large and diverse place. It makes sense that city leaders would also ask common people what their problems are. You don&#8217;t have to have a solution to the problem in this contest and that is what makes it different and more engaging to a broader audience. Maybe this approach can help illuminate issues that might go otherwise unnoticed by developers or government officials in other types of contests. [...]

[...] O&#8217;Reilly&#8217;s Andy Oram attended the event and published his thoughts on Radar. Oram argues that government contests may not produce sustainable applications, a topic we have explored some in the pros and cons of government contests. [...]