Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
After drawing criticism from the tech community, the city redefines how government app competitions can work efficiently.
Though it’s not quite Silicon Valley, New York City has a robust tech community full of startups that are eager to get their hands on government data. Couple that with a city that’s hungry for newfangled solutions to their toughest problems—affordable housing, public health, transportation, and the like—and that’s how NYC’s annual BigApps contest has endured over the past seven years.
Like other government app contests that began around the same time, this one wanted the tech community to build a product that would make life in the city easier. But BigApps’s initial approach was haphazard: It released its repertoire of data and told developers to sift through it and repackage the data in something of a free-for-all, with little guidance. The problem with letting developers define the problem, though, was that “geeks will build apps for getting bicycle directions, they'll build apps for finding cocktail and coffee specials, not the kinds of things that working mothers need,” Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities, told CityLab in 2014.
So starting in 2013, the organizing group New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) changed its game plan. This year, it refined the focus of the competition, which launched in mid-January, on three of Manhattan’s underserved communities: youth, seniors, and immigrants. And they narrowed the issues down to three “challenge areas.” One focuses on expanding transportation to those communities, another on easing access to important service information, and the third on enabling people to build community resilience.
Submissions are due by the end of April, and participants don’t have to go it alone. The Civic Hall Labs, a nonprofit promoting civic technology, has partnered with EDC to host seven workshops that will walk teams through the development process and bring in tech professionals as mentors. Local leaders who work with each underserved community will also be present to guide the teams in creating useful products.
A rocky start for government app contests
Over the years, BigApps has resulted in dozens of apps, some more useful than others. A few early winners saw success beyond the competition. The subway navigation app Embark NYC, for example, won an investment from BMW and was eventually acquired by Apple. Then there were apps like Trees Near You, which mapped the city’s trees, and Sportaneous, which alerted users of nearby pick-up games. Both were great in principle, but failed to find a mass audience.
“The reality is that we use five or six applications on our phone,” says Alex Howard, deputy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government. “And unless a given application solves a problem for someone, whether it's a mapping application or social utility, it's difficult to get it on someone's radar.”
That underscores a larger problem that drew harsh criticism from tech experts, one of whom was Hana Schank, now a user interface strategist at the U.S. Digital Service. In a scathing takedown on Fast Company in 2011, she pointed to the competition as an example of “New York’s digital deficiency”:
All of this is the predictable result of the city's approach to digital development, which focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak. It's time for the city to deeply explore what New York's citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.
Her critique reflected concerns with all early versions of government app contests. The first citywide competition took place in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Called the Apps for Democracy challenge, it was largely seen as a success, and it spurred New York City, San Francisco, Portland, and others to jump on the bandwagon. But the model of simply dumping data on developers meant that many of the apps that came out of the competitions were quickly abandoned, and eventually cities gave up. Apps for Democracy lasted only two years.
Other critics, like Waldo Jacquith, who currently works at 18F, a digital consultant agency for federal agencies, lamented the lack of support to keep the more successful apps going long after the competition is over. “These apps have got to have a business model, whether making money themselves, or being such clear grant-bait that it’s clear an organization will take them in-house,” he wrote on his blog. “Otherwise it’s just a toy that will do nothing to benefit anybody.”
Indeed, the first BigApps competition awarded winners a cash prize and a dinner with then-mayor Michael Bloomberg. “No commitment to fund, adopt, promote or license the app for citywide use,” Townsend wrote in 2009 on the blog Planetizen. “People that build city apps want to engage the public and the investor community, not the city's political elite.”
How BigApps matured
This year’s prize for the BigApps contest points to a change in strategy by the the EDC. There’s still that monetary prize to help further develop the winning products (there will be several), but this year they’ve added something more coveted: admission into a six-month accelerator program that Civic Hall Labs will launch in the summer, along with other business and legal support. “They'll have more hands-on mentorship, where it's also going to be about how to create a viable business,” says Kacie Kocher, Civic Hall Labs’ director of organizational design and stakeholder engagement. “That can mean the kind of normal entrepreneurship trajectory within the market, or [working with] a nonprofit, or sometimes scalability is a large agency taking over and bringing it to the community.”
There’s also an added bonus. One of the winners will be able to have their product tested out on the thousands of LinkNYC kiosks placed throughout the city. “Essentially it is a way to literally get those technologies in the hands of the thousands of the people, so there couldn't be a better opportunity to put these solutions in front of people,” says Ryan Birchmeier, who handles public affairs for EDC.
For Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard, BigApps represent a shift and “maturation” of how the government views government app contests. Beginning in 2013, EDC ramped up collaborations with corporate and community partners to first define NYC’s most pressing issues. That year, it awarded prizes to apps that helped working parents find top-rate childcare centers, that recommended health food options nearby, and that informed locals about whether their homes were suitable for solar panel installation. And in 2015, the group narrowed the challenge even further to fit Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan, which focused on affordable housing, zero waste, connected cities, and civic engagement.
“I think the evidence is that you start with the problem, and then look for data that would help [developers solve that], and then create a pipeline by which that someone submits a prototype—hopefully a working prototype with code—that could then be something government pulls into a more established approach,” says Howard.
And even if the contest doesn’t bring on the next big app, there’s still a benefit to them, if they’re done right. “These contests have been able to get governments themselves to structure and publish data, and do so in a way that’s helpful,” he tells CityLab. If they’re taking the time to structure the data and cataloguing them, he adds, “there's a hidden benefit to government internally because they can then use the data to improve operations through evidence based policy and predictive analytics.”