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Gov't App Contests Are Cool, But Are They Useful? 41

Posted by timothy
from the why-we-have-the-word-overweening dept.
theodp writes "In 2008, Washington, DC, launched one of the hotter trends in public-sector technology: the 'apps contest'. But even as more jurisdictions jump on the bandwagon, the contests are reportedly producing uneven results, and the city that started it all is jumping off the bandwagon. '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 CTO 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. 'If you look at the applications developed in both of the contests we ran, and actually in many of the contests being run in other states and localities,' Sivak says, 'you get a lot of applications that are designed for smartphones, that are designed for devices that aren't necessarily used by the large populations that might need to interact with these services on a regular basis.' Sivak also cited maintenance of the new apps over the long term as a concern."
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Gov't App Contests Are Cool, But Are They Useful?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 07, 2010 @08:03AM (#32482264)
    Then: "So let's have an app contest to design neat applications for smartphones!"

    Now: "Well it didn't work out because the apps were designed for smartphones..."

    NO SHIT
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by al3 (1285708)

      I understand that government needs to concern itself with building things that help the most people, but opening up interaction with government so that user groups can define how they want to interact is a good thing. It's sort of like the long tail.

      If you create conditions where someone makes an app for smartphones (open government data), and it only gets used by people with smartphones, this is a net gain for the society. It didn't cost government what it would cost to develop from scratch, including the

      • by wangi (16741)

        If you create conditions where someone makes an app for smartphones (open government data), and it only gets used by people with smartphones, this is a net gain for the society

        Nonsense. The folk with smartphones are typically those who'd already interact with government. You are doing absolutely nothing to interact with those who are totally disenfranchised. You know - the ones who cannot afford the net, cannot afford a fancy phone?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward
          It is possible to improve a situation without improving all facets of the situation at once.
          • by al3 (1285708)

            Right. The point is these groups can often server themselves by writing their own apps that use government data, freeing government to focus on the other areas of the problem.

        • by stdarg (456557) on Monday June 07, 2010 @08:51AM (#32482462)

          Make it easier for the middle class is just as valuable as making it easier for the very poorest.

          • Make it easier for the middle class is just as valuable as making it easier for the very poorest.

            Not really...

            I mean, yes, 1 million people is 1 million people, regardless of their income level...

            But if you spend $X on an app that only reaches folks that own smartphones, you have to compare that to spending $X on a mass-mailing that would reach anybody with a mailbox. Or a radio campaign. Or Posters. Or billboard ads. Or whatever.

            Folks who can afford smartphones generally have fairly good access to information and resources. They generally have a halfway decent income and education. They usually

            • by stdarg (456557)

              So there's a very real question... You've got $10 million to spend to help make government more accessible... Do you spend it on a smartphone app that will only reach folks who already have plenty of ways of accessing government? Or do you spend it on something that'll reach all the folks who have a hard time accessing government right now?

              I honestly don't think you can judge it based on the preconditions of the experiment, but on the outcome.

              A smartphone app that somehow let a million curious middle class people keep better tabs on the government would be extremely valuable and beneficial to our entire society in my opinion. Spending the same amount of money doing something to help the poor would be noble but not inherently more valuable to society overall.

              I guess this is the same sort of question as in No Child Left Behind. Is it better to

            • by tomhath (637240)

              Keep in mind that the real goal was to engage local application developers and gauge how well this kind of rapid one time application development project would work. This project had a budget of $50K, so if they got something that's useful to anyone at all they did well.

        • by delinear (991444)

          From (one of) TFAs (I hate these summaries with no one clear article just a bunch of links):

          The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days - a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000

          If that's true, then even if the poorer communities can't benefit directly from the contest, they can certainly benefit indirectly from the fact that there's $2,250,000 more in the pot to spend on other services. I'd also like to point out that I'm a smart phone user who i

          • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Hi honey! I was at the mall today and my favorite store had a sale on shoes. I bought $2.3 million worth of shoes for a mere $50,000. Sure, we can't pay the mortgage and I'm not sure where the grocery money is going to come from, but don't you see, I saved us $2.25 million! Oh, and the shoes are only theoretically worth $2.3 million, they were marked down to $50k because none of them match style, color or size, so nobody actually wants to buy them. But I saved us $2.25 million!

            It sounds like these apps w
        • You are doing absolutely nothing to interact with those who are totally disenfranchised.

          Who are those disenfranchised? The blind? The disabled? The homeless? The mentally ill? The non-english speakers? The incarcerated? The young? The old? I'm just wondering how you would suggest we reach this hugely fragmented group of people?

          The folk with smartphones are typically those who'd already interact with government.

          And yes, those same people, some of which may already be care-takers/nurses/doctors, librarians, church volunteers/priests, volunteer firefighters/medics, school staff, social workers, NGOs, community activists, good Samaritans/concerned citizens, etc, those people ma

        • by Genwil (943858)

          If you create conditions where someone makes an app for smartphones (open government data), and it only gets used by people with smartphones, this is a net gain for the society

          Nonsense. The folk with smartphones are typically those who'd already interact with government. You are doing absolutely nothing to interact with those who are totally disenfranchised. You know - the ones who cannot afford the net, cannot afford a fancy phone?

          I think you have made too large an assumption and ignored the points about the usefulness of allowing people to interact how, when, and in a manner of their choosing. Good apps are a net benefit.

        • If you create conditions where someone makes an app for smartphones (open government data), and it only gets used by people with smartphones, this is a net gain for the society

          Nonsense. The folk with smartphones are typically those who'd already interact with government. You are doing absolutely nothing to interact with those who are totally disenfranchised. You know - the ones who cannot afford the net, cannot afford a fancy phone?

          Merriam Webster defines disenfranchised [merriam-webster.com] as: "to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity; especially : to deprive of the right to vote"

          Last I checked those who could not afford smartphones were not being deprived of their rights, and certainly not the right to vote. In addition smartphones are becoming more and more affordable, some are given away as the free phones with a contract now and many people are replacing landlines with cellphones.

          Smartphone apps are a viabl

        • by exomondo (1725132)

          totally disenfranchised

          I don't think that means what you think it means.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DragonWriter (970822)

      Then: "So let's have an app contest to design neat applications for smartphones!"

      Now: "Well it didn't work out because the apps were designed for smartphones..."

      Well, except the contest wasn't specifically for smartphones, though it included them. The problem appears to be that with smartphone apps permitted, those kind of apps dominated, perhaps because they are most interesting to developers, even though they don't, to the same degree, dominate the contest sponsors interests.

      Of course, it would be easy e

  • Wait. So they thought that writing an app would be useful? C'mon. Apps aren't useful, they're cute.
  • ...citizen software developers involved with government...

    But a better idea would be to have the government involved with the citizen, every now and then.

  • A nebulous set of requirements leads to software that doesn't fulfill unwritten desires of the client. An old story.
  • Why isn't "cool" enough?

  • by justleavealonemmmkay (1207142) on Monday June 07, 2010 @09:29AM (#32482844)

    98% of "apps" in "app stores" are bullshit, that have the functionality of a web form, but that for some reasons were coded in a proprietary, non portable API instead of the ubiquitous xml-http-javascript-html-LAMP. The only reason I can think of is that "buying the app" is a kind of subscription service, for which subscription systems would work better. It doesn't explain the free apps.

    I mean WTF, a "New York Times" app? What can it do that a web browser cannot do ?

    The only 2% of apps that make sense actually use the terminal in a way for which web techs are not optimal: for its I/O capabilities (GPS, camera, phone...)

  • by Covalent (1001277) on Monday June 07, 2010 @09:29AM (#32482846)
    I am a teacher, and so I know this first hand: poorly designed rules result in poorly designed products. If smartphone apps are no good, then prohibit them. This has nothing to do with the designers or the idea of using a contest to design good software. This is about redesigning the rules to get what you actually want.
    • by lyinhart (1352173)

      I am a teacher, and so I know this first hand: poorly designed rules result in poorly designed products. If smartphone apps are no good, then prohibit them. This has nothing to do with the designers or the idea of using a contest to design good software. This is about redesigning the rules to get what you actually want.

      Yup. As a matter of fact, here's Item 2 in the Apps for Democracy guide to making your own Apps contest: [appsfordemocracy.org] (pdf)

      Item 2 - Define Rules

      Rules are the enemy of creativity and innovation. Avoid rules at all costs. With Apps for Democracy our only rule was to use at least one data source from http://data.octo.dc.gov/ [dc.gov] to build an application of some kind.

      Software development, even in the public sector requires some kind of planning. You've got to know what you want/need and how you're going to develop it. Can you imagine if they extended Apps for Democracy type programs to public works projects? Some dude thinks he should build a tree house in the middle of a forest. Another person thinks it would be great to build a bird feeder in another tree. Som

  • Here is the pulse. And here is your finger, far from the pulse, jammed straight up your ass.

    • A quote, potentially flamebait, but not really. The truth is that people are buying smartphones en masse and developing an app is a good way to reach the public. Sorry my use of a quote confused you. Better luck next time you have mod points.

  • A contest might save money initially, but does it take into consideration the support, maintenance, updates, etc that the winning developer is going to offer?

    In many software business models, the support is much more expensive than the actual application

    • You could just run another contest when the internal api of the city program changed and get support for 50k ... ooo.. wait.. they stopped doing that... so back to hiring expensive contractors to maintain code written by citizens... it's a vicious circle!

Somebody ought to cross ball point pens with coat hangers so that the pens will multiply instead of disappear.

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