Apps for Democracy

iStrategy Labs and DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
Washington, D.C.

Newest Application/Winner of Apps for Democracy 2010

The Grassroots Mapping initiative is an activist group of citizen mappers documenting the environmental effects of the Gulf Coast oil spill using inexpensive cameras attached to balloons and kites. The aerial photos, taken from heights of up to 1500 feet, are providing images that have 10,000 times higher resolution than daily satellite images posted by NASA. The efforts of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in New Orleans with the tools developed by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media and GonzoEarth.com, are resulting in some of the best maps available of the spill.

Adam Boalt, first prize winner of Apps for Democracy, has helped fund the Grassroots Mapping initiative led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Jeffrey Yoo Warren.

Boalt learned about the Grassroots Mapping after reading about their Gulf Oil Mapping project on KickStarter.com, a funding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen was recently featured in Fast Company magazine as one of the top 100 most creative people in business for 2010.

“We’re overjoyed that Adam Boalt has stepped up to support this groundbreaking grassroots effort; with his help we will be able to support citizen mappers in further documenting the effects of the BP oil spill,” Yoo Warren said.

“Adam Boalt’s belief in transparency resonates strongly with our desire to provide high resolution public domain imagery of the spill, and we will further that cause by assembling and deploying new Grassroots Mapping Kits for volunteers along the Gulf coast.”

Boalt, who frequently supports local technology and Government 2.0 events and projects in Washington, DC, where he currently resides, won the original Apps for Democracy contest. The contest was a catalyst for the Gov 2.0 movement.

“I think that the Grassroots Mapping initiative is a great way to build awareness in the community and around the world of the reality of the situation in the gulf, and provide usable, actionable data that will aid in the restoration of the Gulf Coast,” said Boalt. “I truly believe that in the future, crowdsourcing information like the mapping initiative will play an instrumental role in creating aid deployment strategies after natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, especially in developing countries.”

Warren recently presented Grassroots Mapping at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York city last week on June 4, 2010. Craig Newmark of craigslist.com, Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, and Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, Inc. were some of the technology enthusiasts in attendance. O’Reilly, who was recently featured on the cover of Inc. magazine, is a leading proponent of transparency, and believes that, “Gov 2.0 isn’t just the future of technology; it is also the future of democracy.”

Brief Overview

“Apps for Democracy produced more savings for the D.C. government than any other initiative.” -Vivek Kundra, Former CTO of Washington, DC.

In September 2008, Vivek Kundra (then CTO of Washington, DC, now current Federal CIO) asked iStrategyLabs how we could make DC.gov’s revolutionary Data Catalog useful for the citizens, visitors, businesses, and government agencies of Washington, DC.

The Data Catalog contains all manner of open public data featuring real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators and is the most comprehensive database of its kind in the world. Our answer was to hold an innovation contest where we put the data in the hands of our talented citizens and gave them cash prizes and recognition for their efforts in developing technology for their neighbors and city government.

As a result, we created Apps for Democracy – a contest that cost Washington, DC $50,000 and returned 47 iPhone, Facebook, and Web applications with an estimated value in excess of $2,300,000 to the city. This figure was provided by DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer as a sum of the individual costs to develop the apps, plus the internal human resources that it would have cost the city to procure and manage the project.

The DC government also wanted to hear citizens’ ideas about problems that could be solved through technology, as well as their ideas about the perfect system to receive feedback and service requests. iStrategyLabs engaged the populace of Washington, DC using AppsforDemocracy.org blog posts, email surveys, video testimonials, voice call-in captures, Twitter update submissions, in-person town halls, physical meetings with community groups, and more. In just three weeks, 230 ideas were submitted and 5500+ votes were cast.

There are over 400 blog posts, radio interviews, and videos about this project, many of which you can find here: http://delicious.com/corbett3000/%

There are many moving parts and pieces to running an Apps for Democracy contest. We’ve broken most of this down into 9 core components.

We released a full guide for other municipal, state and federal governments to use when putting their own contests together. That guide can be found at http://bit.ly/apps4all.

Solution: Provide citizens with a voice in the way their government spends its resources

On September 11th, 2008, Vivek Kundra, CTO of Washington DC, asked iStrategyLabs how we could make their revolutionary open Data Catalog useful for the citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of DC. My response was:

“You can do one of two things. You can spend years and millions of dollars contracting this out to big consultancies – and you’ll end up spending twice what you thought you would and get half the quality you hoped for…which is what governments do now. Or, the other way is to have an innovation contest where we put the data in the hands of the people, and give them cash prizes and recognition for their efforts.”

This spark ignited what became an historic moment in democracy through technology innovation. We came back two days later with a proposal on how iStrategyLabs could create a new method for innovation in government through a contest called Hack the District – which was renamed by Vivek and his team to Apps for Democracy.

This is the first and only client that has ever let us create an idea from scratch and bring it to life exactly as we dreamed it should be.

What resulted is still sinking in:

  • 47 applications were built in 30 days
  • OCTO has estimated the value of these submissions at $2,000,000+ including external contracting costs and internal procurement time
  • The cost to OCTO was $50,000 including prizes, marketing, management etc. representing an estimated 4,000% return on investment
  • OCTO has estimated that it would have taken them 1-2 years to complete the procurement process and receive delivery of applications like these under their legacy procurement method
  • iPhone apps, Facebook apps, web apps, mobile apps, maps mash-ups and a wiki were entered
  • We awarded all medals except the 5th Agency Bronze, as there was not a suitable entry

This quote from our press conference provides a small clue as to how Apps for Democracy has been received by DC:

“While the immediate goal of the Applications for Democracy contest is to develop innovative software to present District data, its long-term goals are broader,” said District CTO Vivek Kundra. “By making government data easy for everyone to access and use, the District hopes to foster citizen participation in government, drive private-sector technology innovation and growth, and build a new model for government-private sector collaboration that can help all governments address the technology challenges of today and tomorrow.”

The winning program from Apps for Democracy 2008 was DC Historic Tours, a Google Maps mash-up that plots routes for walking tours of Washington, DC, and marks points of interest with Flickr photographs and Wikipedia excerpts; and iLive.at, another mash-up powered by Google that 1188 pinpoints demographic data. More government agencies appear to be taking Washington, D.C.’s lead by embracing the cost-effectiveness of “crowdsourcing” – relying upon volunteering citizens rather than in-house developers for application development.

In September 2009, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Interim Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Chris Willey announced the winning entries in the District’s second “Apps for Democracy” innovation contest.

The contest, launched on May 4, 2009, invited residents and software developers to compete for cash prizes for ways to improve city service requests. The competition replicates the highly successful results of the first Apps for Democracy contest, which invited the public to compete in developing applications to make District government data more accessible and useful for the public.

The Apps for Democracy, Community Edition competition had two parts. The first part of the contest asked citizens to offer ideas about how technology can improve government operations and the community.

The second part of the contest challenged developers to create applications that make it easier to submit online requests for city services, such as vacant property inspections, tree removals, street repairs, non-emergency public safety assistance, and others. The applications were required to use open source programming. Developers could access the District’s over 270+ public data feeds and could use the District’s new 311 API (Application Programming Interface), aka “Open 311,” which allows users to build custom applications.

Results

The core outcome was the rapid development of web and mobile applications that leveraged the city’s open data catalog. Due to the success of our program, open government initiatives have sprung up across the world that seek to replicate our success. We intentionally built Apps for Democracy as an ‘open innovation’ method so that others could learn from our experimentation and achieve similar results in their locality. Our example of what is possible has caused governments around the world to more rapidly provide access to their data for civic programs to use in their applications.

In the end, citizens will be better served, governments will be able to reduce costs, and the goal of transparent democracy will be advanced.

“I thank all the creative citizens and technologists who answered our call for innovative ideas and applications. With the help of these homegrown innovators, we’re engaging the community in government and building a digital democracy model for governments everywhere.” – DC Interim CTO Chris Willey.

Data Catalog

For years the District of Columbia has provided public access to city operational data through the Internet. Now the District provides citizens with the access to 432 datasets from multiple agencies, a catalyst ensuring agencies operate as more responsive, better performing organizations.

Create Your Own Visualizations using DC datasets

We created teams of tech community ambassadors and gave them the tools to capture insights from their neighbors. These teams competed to capture the deepest and broadest insights possible. The best team was rewarded with a $1,000 “Social Citizen Award” and public recognition incentives for their participation. The results of our community outreach were provided as research insights to technology developers in the form of a comprehensive multimedia guide covering the “Citizen Driven Technology Requirements,” that informed their work in the technology development contest portion of the campaign.

Through the course of Apps for Democracy “Community Edition,” a dozen 311 applications were created, $25,000 in prizes were awarded, and Washington, DC gained iPhone, Facebook, and Web applications which enable the city to receive and publish insight about service requests received. Check out http://www.fixmycitydc.com as one example.

The winning entry in the Apps for Democracy 2009 contest was an iPhone program in which users can submit 311 service requests to the district government. The application also interfaces with Facebook. The application’s development team of Victor Shilo, Roman Zolin and Andrey Andreev won the $10,000 first prize.

Chris Willey, Washington, DC’s interim Chief Technology Officer, recently told Government Technology that this version of Apps for Democracy, was divided into steps.

“We called this one the Apps for Democracy Community Edition,” Willey said. “The first 30 days, we sent field teams out to talk to residents directly and ask them two questions: One, what problems do you think technology can help solve? Second, what would be the perfect platform to get citizen requests to government? After that finished, we took all those insights and we gave them to the developers and said, ‘Based on this [data] and based on our open 311 API [application programming interface] – which is a way for applications to directly access our call center database – now go and build applications.”

The iPhone program will be “seamlessly” combined with a Facebook application, and eventually rebranded, according to the contest website. According to a demonstration video of the 311 iPhone app, users can send in service requests for things like abandoned bicycles or potholes. They also can post their service requests to Facebook, where friends are able to track and comment on them. The iPhone program also includes a “hall-of fame” feature that posts the Facebook identities of those who most frequently use the 311 app. Users can also submit service requests directly on the Facebook site on a separate application, and the team plans to build in functionality that would allow users to send in photos.

  • Community Edition focused on using just DC’s Open 311 API – and we were looking for the best possible application to run the city’s web and mobile interfaces for the system. Because of this focus, we needed to make sure our participants iterated on their applications over time as we provided them with feedback. In order to enable this, we broke the contest up in to 3 rounds of prizing – evaluating apps in each round and providing feedback so they got better as the final round approached.

Our mission with “Community Edition” is twofold: to engage the populace of Washington, DC to ask for their input into the problems and ideas they have that can be addressed with technology and then to build the best community platform for submitting 311 service requests to the city at http://www.appsfordemocracy.org/application-directory/.

Start up Costs

The startup costs associated with creating Apps for Democracy were limited to $50,000 – $20,000 for prizes, $15,000 for marketing and $15,000 for website design and other creative deliverables. Apps for Democracy has been funded by the Office of the Chief Technology Officer through their research and development budget.

How has this new application for city government performed?

Our second iteration of Apps for Democracy – “Community Edition” – focused on technology development that put to use the world’s first municipal Open 311 API – a web service that allows anyone to query and submit service requests to the city.

The DC government also wanted to hear citizens’ ideas about problems that could be solved through technology, as well as their ideas about the perfect system to receive feedback and service requests. iStrategyLabs engaged the populace of Washington, DC using AppsforDemocracy.org blog posts, email surveys, video testimonials, voice call-in captures, Twitter update submissions, in-person town halls, physical meetings with community groups, and more. In just three weeks, 230 ideas were submitted and 5500+ votes were cast.

We then created teams of tech community ambassadors and gave them the tools to capture insights from their neighbors. These teams competed to capture the deepest and broadest insights possible. The best team was rewarded with a $1,000 “Social Citizen Award” and public recognition incentives for their participation.

The results of our community outreach were provided as research insights to technology developers, in the form of a comprehensive multimedia guide covering the “Citizen Driven Technology Requirements,” that informed their work in the technology development contest portion of the campaign.

Replicability in Massachusetts and across the United States

Every government faces the same problem: How can the provision of services be improved with ever-diminishing resources? Apps for Democracy demonstrates that harnessing citizen talent to co-create technology for their government is one of the ways to address this problem. Part of the strength of these types of Open 311 software initiatives is the ease with which they may be replicated. A local example is Boston’s recently launched Citizens Connect iPhone app, which is targeted at “enlisting Boston residents and visitors to gather information about the physical state of the city.” As stated on the City of Boston website, the intention of Citizens Connect is to “help constituents easily report a variety of different service requests including removing graffiti, filling potholes and fixing traffic lights” (http://www.cityofboston.gov/mis/apps/iphone.asp). Through the success of Apps for Democracy, the Open 311 specification has resulted in a new standard for software initiatives and continues to be adopted by governments throughout the nation.

Future Goals

Apps for Democracy doesn’t have current funding under DC’s new budget. In the future, we’ll be seeking corporate or foundation funding to continue encouraging application development using open government data.

Conclusion

The core outcome is the rapid development of web and mobile applications that leverage the city’s open data catalog. Due to the success of our program, open government initiatives have sprung up across the world each seeking to replicate our success. We intentionally built Apps for Democracy as an ‘open innovation’ method so that others could learn from our experimentation and achieve similar results in their specific locality. Our example of what is possible has caused governments around the world to more rapidly provide access to their data for civic programs to use in their applications. In the end, citizens will be better served, governments are able to reduce costs, and the goal of transparent democracy is advanced.

Contact the Author:
Peter Corbett
CEO
iStrategyLabs
1510 19th Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 917-748-3595
Email: peter@istrategylabs.com

 

 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.