One of the best known civic mobile app contests is the NYC BigApps Challenge. The competition has attracted hundreds of teams from around the world, all vying for high dollar prizes and the promise of a coveted contract with the City of New York. Since the contest’s inception five years ago, hundreds of apps have been launched – with last year’s winners alone sharing a prize pool of over $150,000.
For the winners, it is well worth the effort. The prize money, especially considering that no stake in equity is taken from the winning team or company, is of high enough dollar amount to recoup costs for time spent developing, testing and deploying the app – and possibly make a small profit depending on the size of the team. Along with prize money, there is also the value of international publicity generated for finalists and winners.
But what of the hundreds of apps that aren’t winners, which earn neither publicity nor money? An in-depth study that followed the apps submitted for the 2011 competition reported that only 35% of the applications could be verified as still working one year later. The apps which integrated multiple sources of data along with user-generated content were the most likely to still be in use, but even among those apps, almost half were no longer being supported. That is a lot of time, programming talent, and effort expended on projects with very little reward beyond the experience.
This is only one contest with one study, so perhaps the results would trend differently with larger samples, but I’m not so sure. As the founder and CEO of APPCityLife, a startup delivering a global platform with sustainable options for developing and maintaining useful mobile apps for cities, I have heard this story told all too often by hackathon organizers, city leaders and civic hackers. In fact, in a private conversation with our team, the founder of one of the world’s largest civic hacking groups went as far as expressing regret for launching the group due to the growing challenges of leveraging short-term volunteer labor to create longterm solutions for communities – not because solutions aren’t needed but because most of the events hosted by his organization delivered very little in the way of viable product – and when a completed project was deployed, finding funding and an entity to deliver continued support was an even more difficult proposition.
Here is what I believe must happen if we, as a global community, want to effectively exploit the power of mobile apps to address the growing civic demand for access to information and communication via mobile.
Free Labor Is Not A Sustainable Solution
While most of us have likely participated in volunteer efforts focused on a personal passion, very few of us can sustain full time or long term involvement without enough financial benefit to cover our day to day expenses. Even as a corporation, our team can only provide charitable support to a limited number of worthy institutions. This whole “build it and they will come” notion that somehow all that is necessary is for cities to send their data out into the ether and then the data will be embraced by developers and integrated into useful tools solving pain points for citizens for free is short-sighted. While open data most definitely accessed and used in very valuable ways beyond building mobile apps, it is important to realize that when it comes to this particular aspect of open data, free is not a sustainable solution.
Students, community groups and individuals are usually more than willing to show up for a day or a weekend to attempt to address local issues, brainstorm solutions and begin the hard work of building out the technology needed to bring that solution to viable product, more often that not, a day or a weekend is just not enough time. And expecting these groups or individuals to continue work over long periods of time without financial remuneration is not only unreasonable, it is not good business. Without proper funding, solutions are not easily maintained, updated, or grown to add new features. It is one of the reasons we spent almost a year building a real time coupon server where geolocated, targeted offers are deployed on the fly on a local level. By offering revenue share models where income generated through mobile coupons, sponsorships and advertising is shared with those creating solutions for their community, there is proper incentive for apps to be sustained longterm. And it works – our first public school app went out the door already generating more revenue for the school district than was spent on development or support fees.
Open Data Must Be Normalized For Affordable Mobile Integration
Since most open data is being delivered from legacy servers with myriad formats, the challenge of integrating multiple data sets that are structured differently is a difficult challenge even for experienced programmers. When our team began work on our own global open data app, we experienced first-hand the challenge of developing an app accessing data feed from a variety of sources, including companies like Socrata or Junar as well as data produced by in-house teams in other cities. Instead of tackling each of the data sets individually, we stopped production on the app and took a month to build an incredible piece of technology – a world-class open data server which analyzes data from almost any source and normalize it on the fly for immediate use in mobile as everything from charted city budgets to real-time mapped locations of food trucks. It almost feels like magic happens when an open data feed is added and then appears as a readable chart within seconds. And the best benefit of automating complex coding is greatly reduced requirements of both skill level and time to produce a finished product, meaning that an app that might cost six figures and take months with custom coding can be produced in a few days or weeks and supported for as little as a few thousand dollars a year – and generated advertising revenue can often cover or exceed those costs.
Make Mobile Development Accessible to Non-Developers
During a recent meeting with the CIO of a city on the West Coast, it was mentioned that the majority of people who attend the civic hackathons his city hosts arrive with almost all of the right ingredients: passion, ideas, and willingness to work as a team. What is missing from the majority of the attendees is the one skill needed to create mobile apps for civic solutions, mainly the ability to code. And after his team reviewed numerous platforms available on the market today, none provided the depth of flexibility or the sophistication needed to enable non-developers to create powerful civic apps that would actually solve the problem being addressed. It is one of the many motivators behind our decision to make the necessary upgrades to our platform to offer a version which graphic artists, web developers, and passionate activists could comfortably use. It is vital that as a global community, we enable those who are most willing and able to solve problems to access tools that enable them to finish the job in hours or days instead of months. After news of our first successful bootcamp this past weekend – the first time anyone outside of our own team gained access to our platform – requests for a spot on a waiting list to access this platform have already started pouring in from those in attendance to as far away as South America, Europe and Africa.
If we want open data initiatives to truly succeed and become the conduit for useful mobile tools in our communities, we must offer options for funded projects, provide access to powerful tools which serve as stepping stones for STEM. Only then can we create sustainable public-private partnerships. We will all reap the benefits of more available civic mobile solutions when we come to the place that the only limit holding us back is time.