It’s not (just) about apps. It’s about the open data.

In a Fast Company post earlier this week, information architect and user experience consultant Hana Schank is skeptical of whether New York City takes digital seriously. The city’s approach to digital development” focuses on plenty of sizzle, not much steak,” writes Schank. “It’s time for the city to deeply explore what New York’s citizens actually need, and the ways in which those citizens are likely to behave.”

Schank is onto an important trend, although perhaps a bit late to the party: throughout 2011, there’s been a rising tide of opinion that apps contests and hackathons should make tech citizens need. People like Clay Johnson have been suggesting that government focus on building community, not apps contests for some time.

Schank may have touched a nerve in the NYC digital tech community, given that +Dave Winer shared her piece on Twitter earlier today. As I’ve alluded to,  I’ve seen skepticism about apps contests as mechanisms for solving serious urban problems become widespread, far beyond Gotham City.

“I was discussing this just the other day. From what I know I’m drawn to @HanaSchank’s argument. But NYC not alone sadly,” tweeted Dominic Campbell, in response to my question on Twitter.

Mark Drapeau, Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement, a long-time observer of Gov 2.0, agreed:

Despite Drapeau’s assertions, an emerging trend this year for government app contests in cities is a shift from “what’s possible with this dataset” to focusing on the needs of citizens.

Earlier this week, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell shared a similarly strong opinion about this issue about civic hackathons. “Too many civic hackathons focus on developer vanity projects that don’t address real technology issues governments face,” writes Fretwell. “Government must be proactive in organizing and sharing their needs and collaborate with civic-minded developers during hackathons like Education Hack Day to get these problems addressed. Developers need to focus on projects that make a difference and provide sustainable technology solutions.”

As 2011 comes to a close, the verdict is in. Government entities of all sizes need to think carefully about app contests and sponsoring hackathons. Simply put, the next wave of government app contests need to incorporate sustainability, community, and civic value.

That’s a point that the open government community has coalesced around, as the speakers in the EPA open data webinar embedded below make clear:

A fair assessment of NYC Big Apps 3.0?

If apps contests are going to endure in any form, they will need to evolve. On that could, it look likes that Schank simply missed that NYC BigApps 3.0 asked citizens for ideas about apps they needed. They’re explicitly trying to tie ideas to development, as ChallengePost founder Brandon Kessler pointed out in a comment on her post.

Did it matter that the NYC BigApps organizers asked for ideas on what citizens need? “As someone who does this for a living, doesn’t generally work quite like that,” replied Campbell. “Need facilitated conversation 2 get 2 nub of probs. Complex problems need far more nuanced, in-depth, long-term, facilitated approaches. Apps contests are lightweight. They work for some of the quick wins and easy solutions or to start a process. but what of the ppl who really need help?”

Kessler also commented, however, on the fact that the winner of the first NYC BigApps contest is now a VC-funded startup, MyCityWay. While $5 million in funding after an apps contest isn’t a common outcome (in fact, it’s unique as far as I know) it shows what can happen when civic entrepreneurs decide to solve a problem for citizens that hasn’t been addressed in the market. In this case, MyCityWay offers a good digital city guide that’s populated with open government data. There are a number of other ways that NYC open data has been useful to citizens, not least during Irene, where social, mapping and crisis data played a role in informing the public about the hurricane.

Chicago’s open government approach to an app contest, Apps for Metro Chicago, has focused explicitly on sustainability, requiring open source code, offering technical assistance and explicitly connecting communities with software developers. 

“We’re using the Apps for Chicago to get a new kind of civic engagement and participation, which you can get involved in whether you write code or not,” said John Tolva, Chicago CTO, in our interview earlier this yera. “We’ve invited community leaders and groups to the table. The idea for a ‘Yelp for social services’ didn’t come from a technologist, for example. We’re curating ideas from non-technologists.”

Like Apps for Chicago, winners of Apps for Communities (from the FCC and Knight Foundation) are similarly open source and each are focused on problems that citizens actually have:

  •, ( “provides bus riders with arrival times in English and Spanish when a five-digit bus stop number displayed onsite is texted to the local transit agency.”
  • Homeless SCC ( “connects homeless people and families with services according to their specific needs and eligibility.”
  • Txt2wrk ( “helps parolees, the homeless and other job seekers compete on a more level playing field by allowing them to apply for jobs online thorugh a text-to-speech delivery of job postings on any mobile phone.”

It’s about the open data, not the apps

In her article, Schank is bearish on New York City’s digital prospects, holding up the relative failure of Roadify to burn rubber and asserting that the widely publicized “Re-Invent Hackathon” held over the summer is only going to encourage more Roadify-like ideas, rather than address what people really need out of the city’s website.”

Given that I’ve reported on New York’s digital open government efforts, I followed the progress of that hackathon closely. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Schank picked up the phone and talked to any of the participants or NYC chief digital officer Rachel Sterne: the redesigns of I saw were search-centric and focused on what citizens were likely to need.

Unfortunately, Schank seems to have missed the larger context of how data and open government are transforming New York City. For instance, read her description of the new MTA bus pilot:

“The new pilot program allowing bus riders to text for the location of their bus offers another example of what not to do. Bus riders who text a number posted at their bus stop are rewarded with a text back from the MTA that says something like “your bus is 0.8 miles away.”

I suppose in some city, somewhere, 0.8 miles might be a meaningful designation for the distance between two points, but in Brooklyn, where the program is being piloted, it leaves riders with exactly the same knowledge about their bus’s whereabouts they would have had before texting. Is 0.8 miles very far away? Is there traffic? Why not text back the location of the bus (“Your bus is at Atlantic and Court St.”), or an estimated arrival time, both of which should be easily calculable based on the user’s location and average bus travel times?”

That’s a valid critique and Schank offers good ideas for riders. And she’s clearly right about how fractured information is over 100 websites in NYC, along with the lack of citizen-centricity that’s often on display. (We’ll see if the recommendations from the hackathon bear fruit.)

The thing is, if she, as user experience consultant, wanted to team up with a developer and make a better bus app, I believe that there’s a road to creating such a thing precisely because of how NYC set up its bus tracking system as a platform.

If NYC can similarly open up application programming interfaces and data for traffic violations, lunches and e-cycling, apps for school lunch calendars, speeding ticket and paint thinner disposal locations could become available to citizens. Which all goes to say, if you scratch a little deeper about some of its thinking and actions, maybe NYC gets digital a bit more than Schank’s withering critique would suggest.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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