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NYC BigApps Refines the Civic Hackathon

BY Sam Roudman | Tuesday, April 30 2013

Is this the fuel that will power civic innovation? Photo: Sethw

Just opening up a city’s data doesn’t make it decipherable. And just because an app wins a prize at a civic hackathon doesn’t guarantee it’s going to find an audience, or become useful for the public. In response to the customary criticisms of civic hackathons and app contests, those running NYC BigApps, an app contest centered on utilizing civic data now in its fourth(!) year have reconfigured their contest this time around to guide entrant projects towards maximum social impact.

“It’s like an ongoing hackathon versus your traditional set it and forget it type of apps challenge,” says Noel Hidalgo, NYC program manager for Code for America, who is helping run the contest, along with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications.

As opposed to a single 48 hour coding and caffeine bender and a couple introductory gatherings, the entrants to the contest this year have a couple months to refine their projects. Along the way there are a series of meetups and hackathons in which entrants will have the opportunity to consult experts in the contest’s four “big issues”: jobs and economic mobility, healthy living, lifelong learning, and the cleanweb (energy and environment).

“People are taking their prototype and coming to their events and finding that the use case is different from what they had perceived,” says Hidalgo.

To help make sure entrants focused on projects people might find useful, the subject areas were developed with the help of expert non-profit partners like the Blue Ridge Foundation, and feature in-depth briefs on particular issues, like teenage unemployment or reducing food waste, that a project might address.

According to Hidalgo the categories and briefs were created to address the question of “how apps can actually solve municipal problems and civic issues.” He says that most of the nearly 50 project entrants have a direct connection to one of the four big issues.

Another new feature for this year is that participants can go beyond using public data, and will be allowed to use private datasets like Foursquare API, or crowdsource their own.

“If you can solve the problem it doesn’t matter if it’s a public of private dataset,” says Hidalgo.

As a final inducement, there are the prizes, $150,000 in total, Including a grand prize of $35,000.

“This program has legs, and has follow up funding,” says Hidalgo, “this isn’t just about let’s create an app and thank everyone at an awards ceremony.”

Update: Hidalgo adds, "NYC BigApps is powered by Collabfinder. They are organizing this competition, virtually and physically. Code for America has helped architect the competition, and is assisting in organizing and running the events."