The merits of government apps contests.

On O’Reilly Radar, Andy Oram makes this important point about apps contests:

It’s now widely recognized that most of the apps produced by government challenges are quickly abandoned. None of the apps that won awards at the original government challenge–Vivek Kundra’s celebrated Apps for Democracy contest in Washington, DC–still exist.

He went on to explain there’s actually a single exception to that, but I think that the point stands. It is trendy in government circles to hold “apps contests” (a phrase that I don’t think I’ve heard elsewhere, at least outside of the iOS ecosystem), where private developers create software based on public data sets. Though the concept can seem good at first blush, I’ve been dubious.

I was lucky to be invited to the Health Data Initiative Forum last month, an event put on by the Institute of Medice at the National Institutes of Health. The Health Data Initiative describes itself as “a public-private collaboration that encourages innovators to utilize health data to develop applications to raise awareness of health and health system performance and spark community action to improve health.” (Speaking of which, I got a Fitbit a couple of days ago—it’s a great little device.) The aforementioned Adam Oram was at the same event, and his summation of the event is better than anything I’m liable to come up with. While watching the presentations of some of the “apps” in question, I realized that there were two categories of them: those that were liable to exist six months later, and those that weren’t. 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. Otherwise it’s just a toy that will do nothing to benefit anybody. The exception is perhaps for government units that are not collectively persuaded that there’s value to opening up their data—perhaps such contests to put their data to work can serve as inspiration.

There isn’t an inherent problem in apps contests, I don’t think, but they’re probably not worth bothering with unless there’s a simultaneous effort to foster a community around those data. There’s got to at least be a couple of ringers, folks with good ideas who are prepared to create something valuable. Otherwise I think apps contests are liable to disappear as quickly as they appeared, a strange blip in the upward climb of open data technologies.

3 thoughts on “The merits of government apps contests.”

  1. I’ve observed a similar issue in academic grants to build software. Without institutional support after the grant expires many of the projects languish. I believe the sponsors of these initiatives under estimate the long term costs of maintaining software. Software isn’t “finished” in the way that many endeavors can be called complete.

  2. In addition to the reasons you gave to run an app contest, there is a couple more important roles for app contests:

    1. To test/validate the infrastructure used to “open” government data. App contests can provide an intense beta test by people who can provide precise feedback about what works and doesn’t work.

    2. To demonstrate usability concepts around the information produced by a government agency. The app doesn’t have to live on, but the combination of information and interface the app created may guide future developments in the agency.

    I would suspect that an app content could become an important part of standard government contracting. Or even contract validation. You want to build an system that streamlines an agency’s information use and makes it more transparent? Here’s a relatively cheap way to beta test the effort or even do some rapid prototyping.

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