The case for App Contests

Innovation & technologie

Let’s continue the discussion about “Are civic hackathons/app contests stupid?” In a previous post, I tried to list what hackathons can bring and why they are fruitful for a variety of reasons. The case of app contests may be more difficult to defend and I cannot really refute some of the arguments raised, for example, by Bill Shrier.

My guess on these critics against app contests is that their benefits have been overrated. When someone tells that the results of an app contest worth [exaggeration]324 billions dollars of government software development[/exaggeration] it is obviously wrong. Governments would not have developed most of the apps generated during an app contest. I understand that at the beginning such numbers seemed useful to demonstrate the amount of work executed, but the comparison does not last.

So are app contest useless? Not in my mind but they seem to fit in a limited number of use cases. (Note: I am much less experienced in app contest than hackathons, so this is mainly based on looking at external events).

Difference between hackathons and app contests

A hackathon is mainly about… hacking. Some apps might be produced at the end of the day, but not always. We gather, we play, we leave. For contests, there is a clear target toward producing and judging apps. Contests can be embed in a hackathon (e.g 48 hours blitz development) or can take place without any hackathon, usually on a longer period. To be a serious contest, significant prizes are given to the best applications: let’s say tens of thousands of dollars in total budget or a place in a start up accelerator, seed money, etc.

Here are the few use cases I see to run an app contest.

The “new business creation” use case

This is where most of the critics are focused and I tend to agree. Many of the projects do not have real revenue models or will not scale due to the heterogeneity of the data needed. Instead of focusing on collaboration between stakeholders, the apps produced frequently do not meet the needs of governments and can simply be counter productive. Let’s remind the “best app” of the New York City Big Apps contest in 2011, Roadify, that was applauded by the public but was indeed dangerous since it meant you had to look at your iPhone will driving (I know that’s old).

Even though there might be some cases where sustainable businesses were created by contest apps, the case is weak and most of the apps produced do have a short life duration. As said by others, data standardization would help and this is true. This is why I spend most of my time on Open511. But this is not the only facet of app contests.

The promotion use case

App contest can be seen and marketed as a promotion tool for a government: Let’s show to the world what incredible things can be done with open data. It can also be a way to validate publicly that opening some data creates some value. Unfortunately, only economic value is perceived as value.

To me, this is a valid use case: by bringing people to create useful apps shows the validity of the open data approach. Even if the results are not sustainable, it shows what can be the use of open data. The fact that a wannabe start up cannot find a revenue model does mean that if integrated to an existing tool or to a larger corporation, the same data will not bring reasonable value.

Example: roadwork data. Let’s say a city opens this data among other datasets and runs an app contest. You can imagine several apps helping travelers to avoid road closures. The probabilities that any of these apps will have a good revenue model are low: a city is not sufficient to sustain such app. But, 1. it will trigger the same data to be released by other cities and mainly 2. it might rise the attention of existing players (Tomtom, Inrix, etc.) that this data could be integrated to their existing tool suite. If the single app is not able to extract enough value from the data compared to its need to survive, other players might be able to do so. In this context, the app contest can be a trigger.

The outsourcing use case

Saying that the outcome of the contest worth XXX millions sounds like app contest can become an outsourcing/crowdsourcing option for governments. Obviously, this case is not weak, it is plain wrong. I don’t think that anybody seriously thinks this way BUT the way many contests are built sounds like it.

In the real world, entrepreneur are ready to invest time to win some call for tender, but they will not do the complete work and hope to be the winner. At some point, if this argument is used too many times, there will be (in fact there is already) a pushback.

Several analysis say that technologies tend to favor the “winner take all” model. App contests, mainly designed as an outsourcing strategy (by purpose or not) increase this “winner take all” biais. From my point of view, government should not go in the very same direction as the market.

The conclusion is for both the promotion and the outsourcing cases: the main risk with contest is to get bad press by trying to get as many apps as possible and only pay for a part.

The community use case

As explained in the previous post, hackathons is mainly about developing various strengths of the local communities and app contest can help for this. The best example in my mind comes from the City of Ottawa, who engineered Apps4Ottawa, a smart app contest: lots of categories, lots of winners per category, small but reasonable price for each winner (between 1500 and 3000$). The opposite of “winner take all”. At first, employees submitted ideas of tools they would like to see, then citizens did the same. Finally, developers could start coding, using submitted ideas or not. On top of that, Ottawa already has a good community where developers have a good relationship with city staff thanks to hackathons’ asides like “speed dating” with city employees.

The result of this tactic? Given the “low” but numerous prizes, you mainly attract community-oriented developers who do not do it for big money. But with the high probability to receive some money to cover basic expenses of their apps (e.g hosting, domain, etc.), developers find a justification continue their work. That price also acts as a psychological carrot to maintain the app for a reasonable period. Rob Giggey, who is in charge of open data at the city, told me that he had a higher than expected life duration for the apps built last year, something like 80% being still online and updated.

In the same direction, the NYC Big Apps contest is now more focused on health, sustainable development and so on. Like hackathons, the community use case is probably the most relevant one.

Should we use taxpayer money for app contests

I hate the word taxpayer but I use it here for a purpose: should the money collected by governments be used as incentives for geeks to build apps (even if for the community). I am hesitant on that one. I tend to feel that if the amount is reasonable (some thousands of dollars), why not. Higher than that, it is getting more difficult to justify given the number of community groups asking for some money.

Hopefully there are some other options than taxpayers’ pockets: some (tech) organizations are willing to sponsor such events. To come back on the Apps4Ottawa example, several sponsors backed the contest. Although it is an interesting way, I sometimes feel uncomfortable to see a city team up with tech organizations to do such an events, but this is an example to look at. And Ottawa was not the only one to follow that path.

Next steps?

Like hackathons, app contests are a work in progress, an invitation to try new things. None of my posts is there to say that hackathons or app contests should stay as they are. We should continue to understand what are the core elements of these events, what they can bring to the community and society, why people participate, and then improve how we are doing them, or just change the way we do them.

After the previous post, Sylvain Carle reminded me his KindSource project that aims at facilitating apps development for the community. That is probably one of the interesting directions for hackathons and app contests. My dream would look like this: build some gov & company sponsored events where non-tech community groups team up with developers to build projects. Governments could use a part of the envelop they have for community group support and distribute it based not only on the sexiness of the project but on its effective use for the community served. Like many gov supported initiatives, the promoters of the project should accept to mobilize their resources and potential other sources of money to sustain the project for a given period.

One should find a process that makes it a little easier to access than usual gov grants and the result would be tools useful for the community and money used for better places, better communities.

Stéphane Guidoin est un amateur de chocolat qui s'essaie à l'occasion à une analyse du monde à travers la lentille des données et plus généralement des technologies, tout en essayant de demeurer fidèle à Descartes en faisant usage d'une bonne dose de doute.

Billet suivant

12 reasons why (civic) hackathons are not stupid