New York City Asks Hackers to Solve Tough Issues

Customer: New York City

How do you get the most out of an apps contest where eight million people are invited? When the City of New York began its BigApps competition in 2009, organizers wanted bright minds to use the city’s data to improve quality of life in NYC. Over the years, they learned the best way to do so is to challenge those minds by connecting them with real civic problems and partners.

Strong Leadership from the Start

New York City initiated the BigApps competition well before most cities were considering open data programs. It has always been a joint effort between the Economic Development Commission (EDC) and the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DOITT). Describing his vision for the event, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says, “The power of the city’s tech ecosystem is its potential to create real, tech-driven solutions that enhance the qualify of life in the city. The BigApps competition taps directly into that potential.”

Andrew Nicklin, Director of Data Practices at Johns Hopkins GovEx and former Director of Research and Development for the NYC DOITT, played a leadership role as NYC BigApps evolved. Nicklin wanted, like de Blasio, to put data to work. He says, “While raw government data can be a foundation for economic growth, it takes innovative thinking to leverage it and present it in meaningful ways.”

Top Tier Open Data Program

New York City’s data is hosted on its open data site nyc.gov/data. The information on this site has been the core of BigApps. New York City’s movement toward highly-accessible public data was initiated by former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, who said about BigApps, “If we’re going to continue leading the country in innovation and transparency, we’re going to have to make sure that all New Yorkers have access to the data that drives our city...catalyzing the creativity, intellect, and enterprising spirit of computer programmers to build tools that help us all improve our lives.”

Nyc.gov/data is one of the most attractive, comprehensive, and user-friendly open data websites in the world. Not only can citizens gain real-time access to public datasets via application programming interfaces (APIs), the data is organized into categories for easy searching. Images accompany popular datasets, supporting materials and guidance for developers are easy to find, and tutorials are available for learning to work with popular datasets like 311 requests. All of these resources, interactions, and inspiration add up to the ideal home base for participants in the BigApps competition.

New York City’s Open Data Portal

Everyone Can Contribute

Over the years, the competition’s organizers have increased the number of ways participants can connect, share ideas, recruit new teammates, and track progress. Leading up to the most recent BigApps, citizens could attend seven different ideation and design-thinking workshops at Civic Hall in New York City, a great opportunity to network and learn.

“Since 2009, NYC BigApps has pulled together hundreds of passionate New Yorkers to solve our city’s most challenging issues,” said New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) President and CEO James Patchett in a press release on the most recent event. “The competition has not just yielded impactful solutions, it has also spawned great companies and created new jobs.”

In addition, BigApps offers significant rewards to its winners. Besides $30,000 in cash and prizes, grand prize winners receive opportunities to further develop their products alongside local tech leaders, even receiving admission into the Civic Hall Labs’ Civic Accelerator program designed to help launch ideas into early stage startups.

Crowdsourcing Key Issues

Besides widespread engagement, social and economic impact matters to the BigApps team. Early on in the competition’s evolution, organizers reached out to small businesses, nonprofits, universities, cultural institutions, and other entities to surface specific, pressing local issues that participants could directly address and solve.

This crowdsourced approach to finding challenges has allowed local businesses and organizations to sponsor work on key civic issues where they have expertise. In 2017, the key issues, or challenge categories, were transportation, knowledge, and community resiliency.

Meet the Winners

The BigApps 2017 grand prize winners were selected from each challenge category. In the transportation category, On Board, a passenger check-in system for New York City’s paratransit network (Access-A-Ride) was selected as the grand prize winner. The goal of the service is to empower transit advocates to assess and improve schedules, quality, and safety levels of services for New Yorkers.

“What I’m most excited about is having access to all of the resources provided through BigApps, through Civic Hall and through NYCEDC,” said On Board team leader Shaye Roseman according to State Scoop. “It’s going to be absolutely critical for me and my team to continue building out the idea, trying to complete the user research, and ultimately build out an initial prototype to try and really understand if this is a viable solution.”

The creators of On Board, a check-in system for New York City’s paratransit
network, accept their BigApps award. (Bekka Palmer)

The grand prize winner in the knowledge category was PASSNYC Opportunity Explorer, an interactive catalog and universal application with 200+ extracurricular opportunities for local students. The service offers a quick way for students and families to access tutoring, test-preparation, scholarships, and other ways to advance their knowledge.

The creators of PASSNYC Opportunity Explorer, which helps students find
and apply for city-based after-school and extracurricular programs. (Bekka Palmer)

This year’s final grand prize winner in the community resiliency category was Nesterly, a digital marketplace to enable older residents with extra space in their home to connect with younger residents willing to exchange housework for reduced rent.

The creators of Nesterly, an app to help older homeowners rent space to young
people in exchange for help around the house. (Bekka Palmer)

A Big Vision for the Future

Just how much of an impact can open data have on the lives of New York’s citizens? Mayor de Blasio is optimistic. He says, “NYC BigApps is about New Yorkers helping New Yorkers. Every year, we ask our tech and creative talent to help solve pressing challenges. They step up and consistently exceed our expectations with innovative ideas for New York.”