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By GCN Staff

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Mashup city

Like other organizations, government agencies are quickly learning the benefit of Web 2.0-style data sharing, in which they can set up news feeds to convey information to their constituents.

But merely setting up a data feed is not enough. The city of Washington D.C., has been on the cutting edge of Web services-style data portability for some time now. It has more than 240 data feeds available to the public on everything from crime incidents to building permits.

But having an Extensible Markup Language-encoded list of some form of public information isn't enough. The agency needed Web applications that would harness this information and make it useful to the public.

But who can keep up with the myriad new ways that people get their information from these days? Yesterday it may have just been through the Web. Now it's through Facebook, iPhone, Google Maps, Twitter and many other conduits.

In most cases, what an agency would do is hire an integrator to build some application that takes advantage of this information. But this traditional procurement process can be expensive, time-consuming and lead to so-so results. So, last fall, D.C. tested a new tack: It relied on the power of crowd sourcing. In other words, it held a contest.

The city, under the auspices of the Office of Chief Technical Officer Vivek Kundra, contracted social media consultancy firm iStrategy to carry out the proceedings. The rules were simple. First, entrants had to build a Web application or other digital feed that would use one or more of D.C.'s feeds. The second qualification was the application had to be open source.

The contest would award multiple prizes, ranging in value from $100 to $2,000 each, for a total in $20,000, to the apps that were most innovative at delivering government information to the populace. Different categories were set up for individuals and for organizations.

It was a new strategy, but it was one that worked pretty well, said Peter Corbett, the head of iStrategy. The contest was set up and held within a month. iStrategy spread word of the contest through the developer communities using newsgroups and assorted Web 2.0 social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. The winners were announced last November.

Apps for Democracy received a total of 47 entries. The city estimated that, if it were to commission these apps individually by contractor, it would cost more than $2.6 million between the contract awards and procurement process. (The city paid iStrategy $50,000 to run the contest, according to Corbett).

Corbett said he was surprised by the sophistication of the entries. "The first app submitted was for an iPhone app," he said.

The first-prize winner for the organization category went to a site called D.C. Historic Tours, developed by Adam Boalt of Boalt Interactive.

"If you hired a digital agency to build this [under a government contract], it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 and take a couple months to get built," Corbett said.

Other winning apps include a Web map that, when D.C. given an address, can return demographic data, crime reports and other information for that neighborhood. Also winning an award was a carpool matchmaker and a series of mobile phone apps that, using the phones GPS tracking, can point you to the nearest bank, post office, gas station or other resource.

This site uses Google Maps as a basis for allowing users to build their own map-based walking-tour itinerary of D.C. It pulls information from Wikipedia, the Flickr photo-sharing service and from a list of historic buildings.

The city seems to be pleased with the results of the contest. Corbett is talking with D.C. about the possibility of running a second iteration this year. He is confident that this model could work for other city, state and public-facing federal agencies.

"This is one of the promises of government 2.0: the combination of open data and citizen talent," he said.

The nice thing about mashups such as these is that they are fairly simple to build, at least or those with the know-how. About 60 percent of the submissions were from individual developers, Corbett said. For Web development firms, the contest provides a nice platform to show off their design skills, and perhaps a new source of revenue if the site can be monetized. Individual developers also might be interested in such contests because winning could help with their "stret cred" in the development community. Plus, who wouldn't feel good about helping the get valuable government information to the people?

"Apps for Democracy was a textbook example of a government entity putting ’2.0’ stuff to work in ways that would benefit the taxpayer," wrote Chris Warner, director of marketing at enterprise mashup software developer JackBe, one of the contest winners. Warner saw the contest "as part of a broad trend towards 'Government 2.0,' where service to the citizen is made better through dynamic, adaptive '2.0' technologies."

Posted by Joab Jackson on Feb 04, 2009 at 9:39 AM


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