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To App Contest or Not App Contest

BY David Eaves | Thursday, November 15 2012

Ever since the City of Washington DC did Apps for Democracy there have been a running series of skirmishes — that from time to time bubble up into a larger debate — about whether or not app contests, or even hackathons in general, are worthwhile endeavor. Alexander Howard captured that debate the last time it frothed over about a year ago, and Clay Johnson wrote a thoughtful piece on why organizations should foster communities not competitions about two years. Last month Antti Poilkola asked how app competitions could be made better and how the applications that come out of app contests can be made more sustainable.

I've never been a huge fan of app competitions, but I do think there exist a set of specific conditions under which they can make sense. Ultimately, everything rests on your goal. What do you want to achieve?

If it is publicity, building awareness about open data, fostering examples of innovation, or spurring a sort of temporary high-voltage crowd-sourced R&D project to see if a broader universe of possibilities exists, then an app competitions can make sense. Those reasons are not just valid, they are fantastic goals for an organization or government. However, it is worth noting that sustainability, sharing ideas, fostering community and building businesses are all absent from that list.

This is because I see little evidence that app competitions — particularly those with cash prizes — are a good vehicle for creating sustainable applications or businesses. They also do not foster community and learning. In many ways, cash prizes actually create all the wrong incentives for sustainability.

Every day, sustainable open-source communities and businesses emerge without the help of prizes. They do so because they find real, tangible solutions to problems that people want solved. Cash prizes spur people to focus on winning a cash prize. Such a narrow, extrinsic motivation is great at focusing people on doing something achievable, and to be clever with the resources, like data and technical talent, that are at their disposal. However, it seems wishful to assume that a different, intrinsic motivation will somehow take over once a prize is won. Most apps I know of were created by people either driven by a passion, such as in the case of Adopt a Hydrant, or a belief that a market opportunity existed, which drove the launch of Open Corporates. In both cases, the real prize in winning a competition is in the potential for free publicity and the possibility of additional users or contributors. While everyone takes the money, the cash prize is secondary.

Moreover, prize money doesn't foster sustainability because prize money itself is not sustainable as a revenue source — except, apparently, in parts of Africa, where winning app competitions has apparently become a viable career. If you want sustainable apps you need to ask people to consider their revenue model as they are coming up with ideas for those applications. Arguably, it doesn't matter if the app turns into a startup or a non-profit open source project — without a revenue model, or at least some value generation model, sustainability is exceedingly unlikely. The exception is if someone is willing to support something for their community out of love, which is wonderful, but they are much more likely to do that for intrinsic reasons than for a cash prize. During last year's International Open Data Day we asked people to re-use other people's open data projects. One team in Canada repurposed the Chicago Tribune's Boundary Service to create Represent, an elected official locator. And while the project now enjoys a number of users across the country, it started off, and remains, a project powered by love.

In other words, if your goal is teaching people to code software, to learn how to play with data, foster engagement, create community, spread tools or share knowledge as well as create some product like an app or a visualization, then I wouldn't run a competition. Instead, I'd organize community events.

For better or worse, these events are called hackathons when they happen in the tech/transparency/politics space. And a good hackathon is liking a quilting bee. It has a utilitarian aspect, but it is also a social occasion where people learn, network, and build community.

These are certainly the goals, and norms, I have tried in my own small way to inject into International Open Data Day. Does it mean that there are lots of sustainable projects produced? No, but it does help network people together and spread ideas and knowledge, and if Stephen B. Johnson is right about innovation, those are probably the most important ingredients to foster.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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