apps for democracy

From 'Hack the System' to 'Apps for Democracy'

Talk to anybody involved in public policy within municipal governments today and they are likely to talk in laudatory terms (perhaps tinged with envy) about Washington D.C.’s  arguably brilliant Apps for Democracy Contest (APPS08).  What exactly is the APPS08 initiative? Peter Corbett, the iStrategy Labs founder and CEO and the architect behind this initiative, gives us a quick overview of the program itself in the Apps for Democracy Living Labs Global Showcase:

The City of Washington, DC needed a better way to make DC. Government’s revolutionary Data Catalogue ( useful for the citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of Washington, DC. The Data Catalogue contains all manner of open public data featuring real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators, and is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world.

We knew that the old way of spending millions of taxpayer dollars with big, slow contractors was a broken model in need of fixing. Our answer was to hold an innovation contest where we put the data in the hands of our talented citizens, and gave them cash prizes and recognition for their efforts in developing technology for their neighbours and city government. We therefore created Apps for Democracy.

This contest cost Washington, DC $50,000 and returned 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications with an estimated value in excess of $2,300,000 to the city. This figure was provided by DC’s Office of Chief Technology Officer as a sum of the individual costs to develop the apps, plus the internal human resources that it would have cost the city to procure and manage the project. That’s a 4000%+ ROI.

For a more detailed overview, visit the APPS08 showcase on the Living Labs Global Showcase portal and stay tuned for the Apps for Democracy Community Edition Showcase;  the public is still waiting on the results from the second edition of the competition which focused on user-driven development and community services, specifically non-emergency service interfacing.   

Having read about the program extensively and having spoken with Mr. Corbett directly, it’s obvious that everything about the APPS08 initiative was exceptional and hardly the norm in policy development.  Even as cities attempt to mimic the effort, I wonder whether they’ll quite succeed.

Corbett tells me that the project developed from an unassuming meeting with D.C.’s former CTO and the current federal CIO, Vivek Kundra.  Because Corbett’s reputation ‘as a guy who knows how to do weird things with technology’ preceded him, Vivek challenged him to do something with D.C.’s rich data reservoirs.  And thus, the APPS08 project was born (note: he originally suggested naming the project Hack the System. Smartly, Kundra thought Apps for Democracy more appropriate.) After an exceedingly fast 30 days of program development, the project was launched----this is a precedent that copy-cat policy initiatives have yet to top.

And indeed, Corbett seems to have unleashed a renaissance-like shift in policy development towards democratized data and open value creation processes.  This July, NYC announced their ‘Big Apple Apps Competition.’  In Chicago, I heard whispers of a similarly inspired program.

Just chatting with Corbett, you get the sense that he’s pretty likeable—straightforward and productively impatient—and he is honestly trying to figure out a good way to ‘drive innovation down into the least served communities.’ Yet, Corbett and his ideas machine have brought on a few detractors.  Corbett tells me that the private sector is a bit dismayed by the initiative and they don’t know how to ‘exact their input in this because they can’t see beyond selling their stuff to the community.’  One critic went so far as to confide to Corbett that the program feels ‘anti-business and populist.’ Reflecting upon this last claim, Corbett asserts ‘I know it’s pro-citizen, and that’s all I Know.’ 

Citizens have got to be a little optimistic when policymakers all over the world are taking cues from this change-agent.

Readers Note:  Earlier last month, the public policy academic, Phillip Mueller, wrote a probing piece on his blog titled ‘The Logic of Open Value Creation.'  In it, Mueller, mulls over the role open value creation mechanisms can play in opening up government processes, thinning the separation between government bodies, policy and their constituents.  It’s certainly worth reading.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for the follow-up post due sometime later this month.  Want to learn more about iStrategy Lab or the Apps for Democracy initiative? Check out