Peter Corbett

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:

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.

No one cares about your crappy (Gov 2.0) app

As I read Gov 2.0 retrospectives and predictions, I can’t help but think of iStrategyLabs CEO Peter Corbett’s ‘No One Cares About Your Crappy Web App’ Ignite talk from July, and what it means for 2010.

In 2010, the Gov 2.0 community needs to think harder about how this movement will bridge economic disparity. Open data, open source, social media, transparency and collaboration are great, but look around the room at the people it serves and ask yourself, ‘how is this bridging the digital divide?’

I’m not saying Gov 2.0 isn’t accomplishing this on some scale. I’m saying there needs to be more of a conscious effort to do so. There needs to be consideration as to how this is catering to more than just the iPhone-wielding, Twitter-tweeting community, or we risk further alienating those who need government most.

Is it Net neutrality? Free iPhones? $10 laptops? I don’t know, but I hope you do, and I hope you do something about it in 2010.

If you’re a developer, designer, marketing expert or aspiring social entrepreneur, think about what Peter has to say:

Follow your passion. If you do that, right, the money will accumulate. You don’t have to worry about that, but what you’re gonna do, is that you’re going to accumulate so much more social capital over time than you even know what to do with, and it will be so much more important than the money you’ve ever accumulated.

At the end of his talk, Peter asks the audience to raise their hands “to actually do things that matter, instead of stuff that’s just a crappy Web app that doesn’t do anything worth doing anyway.”

You raising your hand?

Open gov, Gov 2.0 leaders react to White House Open Government Directive

Here’s what open government and Gov 2.0 leaders are saying about the new White House Open Government Directive.

What’s your take?

Carl Malamud, Public.Resource.Org (@CarlMalamud)

Carl Malamud

“This is great. No equivocating, vacillating, hemming, or hawing. This is all good, big thumbs up to the folks that made this happen.”


Ellen Miller, Sunlight Foundation (@EllnMllr)

Ellen Miller

“The Open Government Directive demonstrates how the Obama administration is matching its aspirational goals with concrete policies and accountability measures. I expect it will create a sea change in how the government and public interact, what information we as citizens have at our fingertips, and that it will redefine that public information means that its online. It’s going to be up to all of us to participate and monitor how well government meets these goals.”


Craig Newmark, Craigslist (@craignewmark)

Craig Newmark

“The Open Government Initiative is a huge commitment to:

  • listening to all Americans, hearing what they have to say
  • telling people what’s going on in government, like where the money goes

The results will create effective large-scale grassroots democracy and far greater fiscal responsibility.

I feel that these efforts are complementary to the adoption of the US Consititution.”


Chris Vein, City and County of San Francisco (@Veinesque)

Chris Vein

The President’s Directive is a tremendous step forward. It not only further explains the President’s vision, but it provides an aggressive roadmap and timeline for getting Federal, State and local governments to improve transparency, increase participation and collaboration. San Francisco is proud to have responded early to the President’s call for open government with our Open Data Directive and DataSF initiatives. The President’s Directive will help San Francisco improve and extend our goal of a more transparent and open City.

Dustin Haisler, City of Manor, TX (@dustinhaisler)

Dustin Haisler

“The Open Government Directive is a great starting point for the open-gov movement in the federal government; however, one thing to consider is whether open data is truly “usable” data for our constituents. Instead of just putting datasets online for mashup artists, we should also focus on the interface our citizens will use to get the information. In addition, multi-agency collaboration starting on the local level will be a very important key to the overall initiative’s success. Overall, I think the directive is good move in the right direction for the federal government.”


Peter Corbett, iStrategyLabs (@corbett3000)

Peter Corbett

“We’ve all been eagerly awaiting the OGD and it’s not a let down by any stretch. It will lend support and clarification to what is a complex issue for our government: how to become more open, transparent and participatory. What we’re seeing here is the innovative use of technology and smart policy to unleash the talent of the American people. I’m most excited about how the work we’ve done on Apps for Democracy will soon be institutionalized throughout federal agencies when OMB releases guidance for how to use challenges, prizes and other incentives for stimulating citizen driven innovation.”


Andrew Wilson, Health & Human Services (@AndrewPWilson)

Andrew Wilson

“This directive represents a significant step toward the president’s goals of transparency, public participation and collaboration. One element that I would like to see emphasized as part of the implementation is a concerted, systemic effort to improve the tools government employees have available to collaborate internally. For me, improved internal collaboration is an essential element to developing the framework for a more fully engaged and responsive government. Imagine a world where cross-departmental information flow was so robust that citizens could interact with ANY agency on ANY issue and could get a timely, complete and helpful response.”


Steve Ressler, GovLoop (@govloop)

Steve Ressler

“Open Government Directive is a great first step in the open gov/Gov 2.0 movement. While the data and transparency piece is important, I’m most interested in how agencies create their own open gov plans and what actions they take from their planning exercise. I believe most of the movement for open gov starts when it is done at the agency level and solving true mission needs.”


Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs (@cjoh)

Clay Johnson

“This is a great and ambitious plan that’s particularly challenging in terms of both logistics and technology. It is the equivalent of the “putting a man on the moon” of the Transparency movement in the federal government. Challenging, awe-inspiring and risky.”


Adriel Hampton, Gov 2.0 Radio (@adrielhampton)

Adriel Hampton

“I am concerned that some may use the document and its compliance deadlines as a simple checklist. However, as did the president’s January open government memo, this document empowers the growing ranks of Gov 2.0 innovators. Its guidance on data release and standards is also valuable and needed.”


Steve Lunceford, GovTwit (@dslunceford)

Steve Lunceford

“I think this is a great step to formalize a process and “movement” that has already been spreading throughout government. I would have like to have seen more guidance around transparency, participation and collaboration from an interagency standpoint versus just citizen interaction, but believe that could be a natural output as agencies strive to meet the various deadlines. It will also be interesting to see how quickly and enthusiastically agencies respond to a directive which lays out new unfunded mandates given the many priorities they are already juggling.”


Bob Gourley, CTOvision (@bobgourley)

Bob Gourley

The most important part of the directive, in my opinion, is the attachment with guidance on plan formulation. The thought put into that means agencies do not have to recreate the wheel when formulating their own plan. The part of the directive that we all need to watch out for abuse on: it seems to apply to all other than OMB and above. Yet history has shown those are the ones we need the most openness from.


Brian Ahier (@ahier)

Brian Ahier

“I am thrilled to see the emphasis on open government this directive represents. I hope to see government agencies able to meet the deadlines for action established by the Open Government Directive. I also want to see citizen participation in determining the high value data sets to be published. Since this directive also requires the data be published in an open format, it will be nice to have documents available where the data is not shielded within the pdf format.”