New York City Asks Hackers to Solve Tough Issues

Customer: New York City | Site: NYC Open Data

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

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg 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, Bloomberg said, “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.”

Director of Open NY for the State of New York, and former Director of Research and Development for the NYC DOITT under Bloomberg, Andrew Nicklin played a leadership role as NYC BigApps evolved. He wanted to put the 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 Portal

Initially, New York City had a homegrown application for hosting public city data but moved to the Socrata platform in 2011 with nyc.gov/data. The data on this site has been the core of BigApps. It is one of the most attractive, comprehensive, and user-friendly open data portals 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 the site offers a Tumblr feed of stories about how data access is impacting the city. All of these resources, interactions, and inspiration add up to the ideal home base for participants in the BigApps competition.

Come One, Come All

“The real secret to success behind BigApps is marketing the competition so that it appeals to thousands of students and professionals with diverse talents and backgrounds,” says Seema Shah of HR&A Advisors, an economic development and real estate consulting firm producing the BigApps competition in 2014. “Whether you have a technical skillset or not, your life experiences are the most valuable assets you can bring to BigApps. Everyone in NYC understands the intricacies of civic life here -- and that’s why everyone should participate.”  She notes New York City already has an active civic hacking community, so the best strategy for BigApps is bringing new people into civic hacking.

The competition’s website has done a better and better job over the years of encouraging participants to connect, share ideas, recruit new teammates, and track progress. In addition, BigApps offers some of the largest cash prizes in civic hacking. Beside tens of thousands of dollars in earnings, winners receive opportunities to further develop their products alongside local tech leaders, even receiving free office space and other resources.

The Move to “BigIssues”

Widespread engagement isn’t enough for the BigApps team, though. Ian Fried, communications lead at the EDC says, “The goal is to reward the best tech solutions to civic life in NYC. At its core, BigApps is a mission-oriented, industry-agnostic, citywide competition that believes in the transformative power of technology.”

He points out that the first criteria for judging apps is, “Potential positive impact on New York City residents, visitors, and businesses.”

However, in the early years of the competition, there wasn’t enough of a focus on garnering participation from small businesses, nonprofits, universities, cultural institutions, and other entities that contributed to supporting a vibrant civic life. In 2013, the BigApps team asked local leaders and various organizations to become partners and surface specific, pressing local issues that participants could directly address and solve.

Expertise and Creativity Abound

The new approach, called BigIssues, allowed local businesses and organizations to sponsor work on key civic issues where they have expertise. In 2013, the BigIssues categories covered the environment, the economy, lifelong education, and healthy living. Sponsors could coach teams, offer resources, and, ultimately, judge the entrants in their BigIssue category.

Each sponsor created a page with guidance, access to data, and other information BigApps teams could use. For example, Pure Energy Partners stating in its BigIssues brief, “In NYC, we throw away more than 6.5 million pounds of food every day. This could fill up 24 subway cars. Or, it could be put to better use as fertilizer and clean energy.” Applicants were then challenged to get creative about this specific problem.

In addition, these partner organizations often host hack days leading up to the main competition. Shah says adding in these experts helps to add a new level of credibility to BigApps, create buzz and increase broad-spectrum participation.

Meet the Winners

The grand prize winner for BigApps 2013 came from the “Healthy Living” BigIssues category. The app is called HealthyOut and it helps users find a healthy meal when dining out, anywhere in the city. It was created by designer Wendy Nguyen, a multi-time entrepreneur with a background in public health and technology. Her $35,000 grand prize helped her build the app and its reach so that within a year it had become one of the top five most downloaded apps in iTunes’ Food & Drink category, and was being recommended by nurses, doctors, and nutritionists. That response is just the kind of uptake BigApps organizers sought by encouraging participants to address known issues.

A Big Vision for the Future

The BigApps team considers the BigIssues program a success and plans to continue with it. “We’ll be addressing new issues in 2014, under a new mayoral administration,” says Shah.

Just how much of an impact can open data have on the lives of New York’s citizens? Nicklin is optimistic. He says, “It will fall to the background and be a mainstay of how things get done. Government as API. It will be so integral in people’s lives it won’t even be noticed, such as health inspection information on Yelp when people look for a restaurant.” He adds, “We want the data to be where people need it.”