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Beyond App Contests: Playing the Long Game

[I recently found this unpublished draft sitting in my CivicCommons Tumblr account.  I’m not sure why I didn’t post it back in January 2012, when I apparently wrote it, but anyway here it is now!]

Recently, during a discussion about civic apps contests, Abhi Nemani asked two sharp questions:

  1. How do you get meaningful ideas from city hall to entrepreneurs?
  2. What can a city do instead of an apps contest?

In response I brainstormed a bit, deliberately keeping the filter turned somehere between “low” and “off”:

  1. A city could maintain a portal tracking requests for particular data sets, and advertise that portal to potential app developers, with the idea that data set releases get prioritized when enough people are specifically requesting them.  (Don’t some cities already do this on their data set pages, actually?)

    One problem with this is that many app developers do not like to signal their intentions, both because they want to keep competitive advantage and because they don’t like feeling they’re promising to do something on spec — they want the data set available, but they don’t want to look like they’ve made a commitment about it.  So the city can’t depend on people saying exactly what they want to do with the data set; the city just has to be willing to consider generic requests for the data set as meaning something.

  2. Cities are sometimes too driven by a need to quantify results, and have those results be immediate.

    What if instead, a city just held a regular, recurring hackathon event, say 2-4 times a year, at which city technologists and local entrepreneurial hackers met unconference-style and did whatever comes to mind.  The city keeps records of who attends.  Then, as apps come out over the next few months/years/decades/whatever, the city figures out which apps are popular — if it can’t do that, we’re worse off than I thought — and compares the apps’ authorships with past hackathon attendees.  When there is overlap, ask a few questions to make sure there’s some causal relationship, and when there is, consider it  a policy triumph and don’t be shy about putting out a press release!

Come to think of it, (2) expresses the high-level principle I was really aiming at:

Cities should actively create an environment that encourages entrepreneurial hacktivity, and then try to measure the results a while afterwards, with actual usage stats as the basic measure of success (rather than relying on artificially-selected judges who don’t have time nor expertise to evaluate apps in real-life circumstances).

“Usage stats” doesn’t have to just mean number of unique users who use a certain app per month or something.  The city could do surveys too. (For example, an app like Square makes a big difference to people who aren’t direct users, because it enables commercial transactions where there is no permanent storefront — so the buyers, who don’t run Square, should still be counted as beneficiaries.  This can be hard to measure well; I’m not sure what a general answer would be, but listening to the “buzz” from different communities is going to be part of it.)

None of this is to condemn apps contests — they can do a lot to kick-start local entrepreneurial energy.  But apps contests don’t by themselves set up a long-term, sustainable environment for civic hackitivity, in part because they’re always in the position of guessing future successes rather than highlighting and learning from existing successes.  They’re a seed, but it would be a mistake to think of the resultant apps as the crop.  The crop is rather an environment, in which city data output interacts dynamically with the community of people using it as input.

Chicago CTO John Tolva’s post “Open Data in Chicago: progress and direction” [1] touches on this, saying of the recent “Apps for Metro Chicago” contest.

The apps were fantastic, but the real output of A4MC was the community of urbanists and coders that came together to create them. In addition to participating in new form of civic engagement, these folks also form the basis of what could be several new “civic startups” (more on which below). At hackdays [2] generously hosted by partners and social events organized around the competition, the community really crystalized — an invaluable asset for the city.

… The overarching answer is not about technology at all, but about culture-change. Open data and its analysis are the basis of our permission to interject the following questions into policy debate: How can we quantify the subject-matter underlying a given decision? How can we parse the vital signs of our city to guide our policymaking?

That’s the long game.  Holding apps contests is fine — but long-term and data-driven followup are what really make the difference.