Contests

California launches innovation contests to improve government operations

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The state of California has launched a $25K Find a New Way innovation contest that gives residents a chance “to identify areas of improvement within the state government and share their untapped expertise to create solutions.”

Participating agencies include the Departments of General Services, Transportation and Alcoholic Beverage Control, and each will award up to $25,000 in prizes.

The impetus for the initiative is Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s Assembly Bill 2138 that created three innovation contests aimed at “eliminating or reducing state expenditures or improving operations, or for making exceptional contributions to the efficiency, economy, or other improvement in the operations of state government.”

Of particular interest is the DGS Green Gov Challenge, where participants will leverage open data to help improve government sustainability practices. The contest includes a Sacramento-based hackathon October 24-25 and coincides with a pilot launch of the state’s open data portal, led by California Government Operations Agency.

Learn more about the Green Gov Challenge and pre-register for the event.

2011 GovFresh Awards entries and voting now open

2011 GovFresh Awards

Every day, tech-minded citizens across the country are doing good by their communities, literally geeking out about how they can help re-define the relationship government has with its citizens, using technology as a democratic tool to collaboratively empower both.

So much is happening in the civic technology community – website redesigns, new websites, open data initiatives, apps, camps, developer contests, hackathons and more – it’s hard to get a perspective on or truly appreciate the collective work of these dot-dogooders both inside and outside government.

That’s why we created the 2011 GovFresh Awards.

It’s time to recognize and honor all that’s been accomplished this year.

It’s time to say thank you.

Here are the categories. Start entering and start voting.

Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.

Quotable: ‘Don’t get blinded by this shiny little iPhone app that’s going to get developed …’

Watching FEDTALKS videos and found this money quote from iStrategy Labs CEO Peter Corbett discussing the Word Bank data catalog and apps contest:

“The most important thing you’re going to do is build a body of hundreds if not thousands of technology developers who really want to use their skills to ameliorate the world’s hardest problems. That’s what’s you guys (should) focus on at World Bank. Don’t get blinded by this shiny little iPhone app that’s going to get developed. That’s not the story. That is totally not in the game. So, what’s the game? It’s about having a body of people, a community of people, that are really passionate about your data, your problems and the solutions that the constituents you serve have.”

Full video of Peter’s FEDTALKS presentation here:

Government spending cuts: Who knows best?

The recently announced UK Government Spending Challenge, has this week, invited members of the public to send in their ideas on how to get value for public money.

The UK Spending Challenge was announced last month, but was initially only open to public servants. As Chancellor George Osbourne explained above, the response from public servants has been impressive. It has yielded over 60,000 ideas in just two weeks:

A couple of weeks ago, I asked people working in our public services for their ideas, and an amazing 56,000 people got in touch. It just shows how people respond when given a chance. We’re already putting into practice many of their ideas.

Now I’m asking the general public for their views. Tell us where’s the waste. What should we cut out. What can we improve. What’s working really well that we should be doing more of. You let us know. You can get in touch via the Spending Challenge website, or by going to the Democracy UK section of Facebook.

Your Government needs you. Please get in touch.

The 60,000 ideas will now be analysed by a central government team who will ensure the best ideas are taken forward as part of the Spending Review. The conclusions of the Spending Review will be published on 20 October 2010.

UK’s Spending Challenge versus US SAVE Award

The opening up of this Challenge to the public coincides with President Obama’s launch of the 2010 SAVE Award. The competition was announced on Thursday with the launch of a new Ideascale site where .gov workers can submit saving ideas and vote on other suggestions from Federal employees.

The site has already received 2,000 ideas, with the current most popular being an expansion of telecommuting, transportable security clearances and the donation of surplus government property to schools.

There’s quite an interesting contrast between the top ideas on the US SAVE Award site – which is currently restricted to Federal employees – and those available on the UK Spending Challenge website which is open to the public. There is however, noticeable similarities between the ideas submitted by UK Public servants and their US colleagues. For example, transferable security clearances are highlighted on the SAVE Award and were also suggested by public servants through the Spending Challenge site.

Some of the most commented upon public ideas, however, on the UK site relate to benefits, immigrants and membership of the European Union. These ideas relate to larger strategic policy areas, rather than the relatively nuanced ideas on improving government efficacy proposed on the SAVE Award site and by UK public servants.

One of the top public ideas on the Spending Challenge relates to the website itself and suggests it should itself be ‘shut down’ to save money. In this vein, it’s interesting to look at the government’s collaboration with Facebook and their involvement in the Spending Challenge.

Facebook: ‘public engagement for free’

On announcing the Facebook tie-up Prime Minster Cameron participated in a video chat with Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He said :

We are really excited about having Facebook involved in the Spending Challenge…

There’s enormous civic spirit in this country where people want to take control and do things in a different way. We are giving people an opportunity with Facebook and I am sure that they will take it.

He went on to echo some of the thoughts outlined by the idea that the Spending Challenge site itself should be ‘shut down’ to save money:

Normally if Government wants to engage with people we’d probably spend millions of pounds, even billions, on our own website, and with your help we’re basically getting this public engagement for free.

That’s quite a good start for saving money.

The Spending Challenge site is based on an Open Source theme and Delib’s Plone-based Dialogue App platform. While this emphasises the government’s reuse of Open source code, the site is not without its criticisms and failings.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes has described the collaboration as “the largest public engagement project ever launched by the British Government”. As part of this the social networking site will ask its 23 million members in the UK to submit and vote on ideas for where cuts can be made.

The Downing Street press release is vague on Facebook’s specific involvement, however, except to say:

The social networking site will support the Treasury’s Spending Challenge by providing a dedicated space for Facebook users to come up with ideas on how to make savings in public spending.

Along with this the government says Facebook will be its “primary channel” for communicating with the public about spending cuts. Interestingly, the reference to WikiLeaks on the Spending Challenge site (highlighted in a previous blog) is no longer active. The entire paragraph where it says it will “monitor a range of blogs, social networks, forums”, has been removed from the site suggesting perhaps that Facebook will be the only platform upon which the debate over spending cuts will be monitored.

The primary question regarding the tie-up with Facebook is whether it provides an appropriate platform for informed debate on government spending and how to improve its efficacy.

Facebook comments

Many commentators have pointed out that the tie-up with Facebook is rather nebulous and currently very limited. In a blog post on techPresident, Nancy Scola notes how their current involvement appears simply to be a link to a government website: “Somewhat confusing matters: Facebook’s involvement in the Treasury Spending Challenge seems limited to, at this point, linking from its Democracy UK page to, yes, a custom-made official British government website.”

Andrea Di Maio, a Gov 2.0 analyst at Gartner, suggests that adding a Facebook channel will not broaden the debate:

So at the end of the day Facebook will be no more than a channel to point to the Chancellor’s Spending Challenge site. Whoever believes that the sheer presence on Facebook will broaden and rebalance participation of UK citizens in this contest is wrong.

People who have an interest (and often a vested interest) in participating in the Spending Challenge will do so with or without the Facebook page.

The quality of the comments and debate on Facebook regarding the Spending Challenge launch does not instill confidence in its use as a debating platform. The Register notes the number of “bewildering” comments and “spam posts” the page has already received.

Reading through the 491 comments this has already received, highlights the difficultly the coalition will have in stimulating constructive debate on such sensitive issues as spending cuts.

Difference in Ideas

There is a clear and noticeable difference in the ideas on the SAVE Award site, in comparison to those on the Spending Challenge site.

The SAVE Award site is only open to Federal employees and consequently has a strong focus on operation efficiency within agencies. As Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director noted:

The basic premise here is that many of the best ideas exist on the front line. Those doing the work on the front lines have the best ideas on how to make changes.

George Osborne published a sample of ideas put forward by public sector workers in the first phase of consultation. These ideas represent many good suggestions for improving back-office services for public sector organisations. They include merging back-office services for public sector organisations, switching off office computers over the weekend and better mobile phone contracts (an idea President Obama highlights in his SAVE Award video and expected to save the Government $10m).

In opening up the idea platform to the public, however, the UK government has shifted the focus away from those ‘working on the front lines’ of government services. Thus, the ideas posted by the public have primarily focused on major public policy questions e.g. reform of the welfare state or immigration policy. These are not ideas for which governments will change course because of an online debate. Rather they represent principles upon which political parties are elected. There is a danger, therefore, that public involvement in the Spending Challenge will morph into a policy debate, rather than the operational efficiency debate for which I believe it was intended.

Generating great ideas in the Public Sector

As part of the doing what works program, the Center for American Progress (CAP) recently released a report called Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector. It analysed 24 ways in which Governments and Organisations are generating great ideas in the Public Sector. These were arranged under five themes:

  1. Unleash the creative talents of government employees
  2. Setup dedicated teams responsible for promoting innovation
  3. Divert a small proportion of your budget to harnessing innovation
  4. Collaborate with outsiders to help solve problems
  5. Look at an issue from different perspectives to notice things your wouldn’t otherwise

The Spending Challenge was initially focused on unleashing the creative talents of government employees to suggest ideas to cut spending. However, its current focus on collaborating with outsiders risks diluting the initiative from producing concrete frontline ideas that could reasonably be implemented, to a policy discussion the outcome of which may-be too nebulous to result in any government action. This has the potential to increase public cynicism in such endeavors if no specific ideas are acted upon.

The essential difference between the Spending Challenge and the outside collaboration examples CAP highlights, is the absence of any specific problem for the public to solve. The challenge of how to ‘re-think government to deliver more for less’ is far too broad and can result in a paradox of choice with the effect that ideas representing the lowest common denominator rise to the top.

The Capital Ideas report highlighted Innocentive, DC’s Apps for Democracy, and Social Innovation Camp as successful examples of collaboration with outsiders. All these focused on specific challenges, for which an experienced minority could focus on.

The real opportunity to collaborate with outsiders and transform the way that the public sector does things, requires posing concrete problems requiring specific outcomes. These can be affected through either product or service innovation, but where possible should be substantiated by evidence-based reasoning. The worry is that opening up the Spending Challenge initiative to the public without reference to clear problems, degenerates it into an idea free-for-all with all the associated online comments we’ve come to expect from such initiatives.

For more check:

A ‘glass half full’ view of government app contests

An increasing number of people are starting to suggest that the concept of the “app contest” (where governments challenge developers to build civic applications) is getting a bit long in the tooth.

There have been lots of musings lately about the payoff for governments that hold such contests and the long term viability of individual entries developed for these contests. Even Washington DC – the birthplace of the current government app contest craze – seems the be moving beyond the framework it has employed not once, but twice to engage local developers:

“I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way,” says Bryan Sivak, who became the district’s chief technology officer in 2009. Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a “great idea” for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more “cool” than useful to the average city resident.

App contests abound

This view is starting to crystallize against the backdrop of an ever greater number of app contests being held. At the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs (who helped launch the first government app contest in DC) gave a presentation that listed several dozen governments around the globe that had recently completed an app contest or were scheduled to soon start one.

And the biggest app contest to date – being sponsored by the State of California – is slated to begin soon. (Two fringe technology companies that you’ve probably never heard of – Google and Microsoft – are set to partner with the Golden State for this 800 pound gorilla of government app contests.)

So if app contests are being used in more and more places, and the size and scope of these contests keeps growing, what’s with all the hand wringing of late?

Lessons learned from app contests

My take on app contests is not an unbiased one. I’ve been a competitor in three different app contests (the original Apps for Democracy, the original Apps for America, and the NYC Big Apps competition) and was recognized for my work in them. Outside of contests, I’ve build applications using open government data and APIs for the cities of Toronto and San Francisco, and for the New York State Senate.

Clearly I am a supporter of the concept of the government app contest.

Having said that, though, I do think that those taking a more skeptical view of app contests are asking some important questions. The government app contest has come a long way since Vivek Kundra was in the driver’s seat in the DC technology office. It’s time to start asking how app contests can be improved.

But before we move on to that discussion, it is worth noting the lessons that have been learned over the last two years or so from government app contests.

First, governments and citizens benefit when high value, high quality data sets are released by governments that are in machine readable formats, easily consumed by third party applications. Believe it or not, there is still debate in many places on this point. App contests prove the theory that publishing open government data provides tangible benefits.

Second, app contests prove that it is possible to engage and excite both developers and high level elected officials about open government data. The cause of open government can’t be anything but well served when these two groups are excited about it, and appealing to both successfully in equal measure is usually very challenging.

Third, and maybe most importantly, government app contests provide sort of a “petri dish” for government officials to see how government data might be used. They let governments solicit ideas from the private sector about the different ways that open data can be used in a manner that is low risk and low cost. Some of the proposed uses of government data that emerge from these contests – whether its tweeting a recorded message to your Congressman, or using an IM client to browse campaign finance data – might never be considered by governments but for them running an app contest.

These lessons aside, there are those who contend that the existence of app contest entries that have languished (or even been abandoned altogether) after a contest is over suggests that an app contest didn’t work well (or as well as it should have). I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Look at it this way; once a government has decided to publish open data sets and enable the development of one single app by an outside developer, the marginal cost of the next app (from the perspective of government) is essentially zero.

Once a data set has been put into a machine readable format and staged for download so that it can be used by a developer or third party, what is the cost of the next download? Or the next 50, or 100? Essentially nothing.

The road to tech startup profitability and success is a long and hard one, and it’s littered with the hollowed out husks of ideas (some very bad, some very good) that for one reason or another just don’t make it.

Should we be overly concerned that the dynamic of government app contest entries is essentially the same as it is for any other sort of technology startup project? Personally, I don’t think so.

Making app contests better

I do however, think there are some things that government app contests organizers can do a better job on.

Most notably, government engagement with app developers over the long-term has proved to be somewhat challenging. Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat has observed the same phenomenon:

“..I would think that one of the desired outcomes [of an app contest] was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.”

I don’t think this is an issue with developers necessarily – I know there is still lots of excitement around the data sets that have served as the foundation for app contents that are now over. I think the issue is that governments do not always have a plan for post-contest developer engagement.

Once the prizes are given out, and the award ceremony is over, there are no plans or strategies in place to keep developers engaged over the long haul. I do not believe this is an issue of money – not every developer is looking for a cash prize, and there are some good examples of government agencies (MassDOT and BART among them) who do a pretty good job of keeping developers engaged without contests.

I also think that a greater emphasis could be placed in app contests on developing reusable components (as opposed to user-facing solutions) that can be released as open source software and used by anyone to consume data or interact with a government API. I’m talking specifically about things like open source libraries for interacting with the Open311 API – tools and libraries specifically designed to make it easier to use open government data.

The easier it is to use government data and APIs the more people will do it, and the more development of reusable components as a by product of app contest, the less angst there will be about projects that don’t remain viable long-term. If one of the requirements of entry is the use (or reuse) of common components, even contest entries that fizzle out down the road will have made a tangible contribution to the open data effort.

I think with a few simple changes, app contests can continue to be used as an effective tool by governments to encourage the development of cutting edge applications powered by “democratized” government data.

‘Design for America’ contest aims to make government data more accessible

Sunlight Labs is holding a civic design contest, Design for America, in an effort to “make government data more accessible and comprehensible to the American public.” Categories are Data Visualization, Process Transparency and Redesigning the Government.

From Sunlight:

This 10 week long design and data visualization extravaganza is focused on connecting the talents of art and design communities throughout the country to the wealth of government data now available through bulk data access and APIs, and to help nurture the field of information visualization.

Top prize is $5,000 for each of these categories:

  • Data Visualization of Sunlight Community Data
  • Visualization of Data from the Federal Budget and/or USASpending.gov
  • Visualization of Recovery.gov Data
  • Visualization of How a Bill Becomes a Law
  • Visualization of Congressional Rules/Floor Procedures
  • Redesign of a Government Form
  • Redesign of a .Gov website

Submissions are due May 17, and winners will be announced May 27 at Gov 2.0 Expo. Sponsors include Adobe, Google, O’Reilly Media, TechWeb, Gov 2.0 Expo and Palantir.

Developers for Glory

Although it may be simple to conflate the Apps for Democracy and Apps for America contests with the exciting new Apps for Army contest, they really couldn’t be more different. Together they represent an exciting experiment in what it takes to pull communities together around a problem. Though they all offer cash prizes to the winners, they each took a slightly different approach, with different results.

Cash incentives are somewhat controversial in open source circles. Most old-school advocates for open source development strongly prefer developers who are personally invested — famously, those that “scratch their own itch.” Developers who are paid a salary to work on software are also invested, but perhaps less zealously than those who are solving a problem they are afflicted with themselves. Developers who are working for glory and cash prizes, the model used by the “Apps for…”  competitions, is yet another class of developer, and despite the excellent submissions to the previous contests, there are valid concerns that the quality and sustainability of the code is not as good as it could be with a different set of incentives. Time will tell, of course.

If I’m a developer for glory, I may compete for the cash prize, or for altruistic reasons, but I’m also competing for the notoriety I’ll get if I win. If I don’t win, what will I do with the code I’ve developed? Even if I win, what are my incentives to continue working on the project? Put another way: how can we ensure that all of this good work and goodwill turns into viable, and active software projects once the contest is over?

Apps for Democracy is instructive.  The contest encouraged developers to provide services on top of the “platform” of Washington, D.C.’s IT infrastructure. This platform includes 270 public data feeds and the city’s newly unveiled 311 API.  47 submissions were collected in 30 days, and the winner was an iPhone and Facebook application that enabled users to take snapshots of potholes, broken windows, and so forth, have them tagged with GPS coordinates, and submitted to the city’s 311 service. Very handy. Unfortunately, the ongoing care and feeding for the application doesn’t seem to be there. The Washington City Paper found in a January 25th, 2010 followup on the contest:

The “Touch City’s Heart” Social DC 311 Web site seems to have been abandoned—it hasn’t been updated for months—saying the “IPhone” app is still waiting for approval from Apple (Apple approved it long ago). Some members of the D.C. 311 team had never laid eyes on the Web site until City Desk asked about it. “I’ve never even heard of it,” said one 311 operator. It has only 27 active monthly users on its Facebook Fan page and 40 followers on Twitter.

I’ll also note that after some cursory research, the source code doesn’t seem to be disclosed to the public yet, which I understand was one of the intents of the contest. Now, to be fair, there seem to be bigger plans afoot:

The dismal following is not a sign of failure, Sivak says. The District intends to take Social DC 311 and revamp the current model into an app that’s “enterprise-ready and robust for a large volume of users,” Sivak says. “Think of this first step as a pilot.”

Fair enough, but I would think that one of the desired outcomes was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.

The first Apps for America contest winner was Filibusted, a tool for outing Senate obstructionists. It measures obstruction by the Senator’s votes on cloture motions. You can find the source on GitHub, but there doesn’t seem to be much activity since the initial checkin. One bug was opened 8 months ago, and doesn’t appear to have been addressed. The last blog post was in December. At the same time, there’s not much to work on — the site has a single purpose, which it seems to fulfil even without much of a community around it. It doesn’t really need a large community, I’d guess, because it’s “done.”

The second Apps for America yielded DataMasher. This tools allows you to compare Federal data sets with each other. Once you have the data and visualization you like, you can share it with others on the site. The source code was released, per the terms of the contest, but doesn’t seem to have much of a community around it. In fact, the DataMasher website doesn’t seem to link to the code from their own site. That hasn’t made the application less popular, though — the community isn’t working on the code, it’s working on the datasets. There’s a steady stream of new mashups that other users rate and comment on. In all, a healthy community that relies on user-generated content to ensure it remains a useful tool.

The second Apps for America contest also produced the strikingly elegant govpulse.us. It’s a vastly improved interfact to the Federal Register developed by the gifted team at GravyCones. The code for this application is available to the public, and seems actively developed to this day. This is, I think, exactly what the organizers had in mind when they started this contest: the tool is popular, the development community is active, and the project continues to improve.

Which brings us to Apps for Army, which is a serious departure from the other contests. First, it’s available only to Army soldiers and civilian employees, nobody from the public — not even reservists. In fact, you need a DoD ID card to go to the official contest website. Second, it seems that only the first 100 teams can participate. From a community standpoint, the project is wading into very unfamiliar territory. Rather than gathering the collective wisdom an initiative of thousands of interested developers, they’ll be picking 100 volunteers, seemingly at random.

The Apps for Army contest further diminishes its potential reach by dictating the tools developers will use: the DISA RACE environment to host the project, and the forge.mil repository for code. Since these resources are being paid for by the Army’s CIO, who is sponsoring the contest, what will happen to the competitors once the competition’s over? There are, of course, excellent reasons for asking folks to use the existing DoD infrastructure, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the doors were flung open, and the bar was lowered for participation.

This isn’t to say that I’m less enthusiastic about these experiments. I’m very excited at the idea of encouraging employees — in the Army, or anywhere else — to solve their own problems. That’s a goodness in and of itself. We just can’t forget that software isn’t a product — it’s a process that requires nurturing. The best way to nurture is to build a community, and that requires transparency and a low barrier to entry for participants. The larger and more active the community, the more likely the software will be better. The more closed, prescriptive, and limited the project, I think, the less likely that it will be viable in the long-term.

So these “Apps for…” competitions are instructive. Each project is building its own kind of community, and I’m eager to see how these projects fare in the months and years ahead.

USA.gov offers $2500 for best video

GSA’s GovGab blog announced a contest to solicit 30- to 90-second citizens videos that answer the question ‘What has USA.gov done for you?’ The contest runs February 22-April 2, and the winner will receive $2,500. Rules at USA.gov/contest. More information at GovGab.

As government searches for ways to better engage citizens, it will be interesting to watch whether an incentive-based approach works. The genius and resourcefulness of this is that GSA can turn a $2500 investment into a powerful marketing tool and create awareness about the site during the process (see also 7 ideas to get more government ideas).

GSA’s Dave McClure announces the contest:

Contest: Best Gov 2.0 Video

If H1N1 can have a rap video then so can Gov 2.0.

Recently, Dr. John Clarke’s H1N1 Rap won the flu prevention video contest sponsored by the Department of Health & Human Services:

Dr. Clarke’s innovative approach using social media to spread an important message got me thinking:

“Gov 2.0 needs a video.”

In an effort to inspire creative govies, Gov 2.0 enthusiasts, civic songwriters, comedians, poets and musicians, GovFresh is sponsoring a ‘Best Gov 2.0 Video’ contest.

Details

Prize:

  • ‘Above the fold’ home page feature on GovFresh.com and GovFresh.tv through December 31, 2009.
  • Awesome GovLoop t-shirt.
  • Bragging rights at every Gov 2.0 event under the sun.
  • If you would like to sponsor a prize, please share in comments or send us a message, and we’ll add to the list.

Rules:

  • Must be creative.
  • Must be original, specifically for this contest.

Dates:

  • October 31, 2009: Deadline
  • Nov 1-7, 2009: Voting
  • Nov 8, 2009: Winner announced

Who’s first?