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Are App Contests Sustainable?

May 23, 2011 2 comments

On May 2, Government Technology published a great article called Apps Contest Winners Need Better Government Data to Sustain Innovative Services. It was a very well-written article about the challenges of sustaining the make-data-available-for- private-sector-innovators model.

By now, many of us are aware of events like Apps for Democracy, an app developing contest in Washington DC that yielded $2.3 million worth of applications at a cost of $50,000. These events have been highly successful because:

Government wins by

  • getting applications developed for free
  • building positive relationship with development community
  • gaining a PR win from the public for being innovative and transparent

Development Community wins by

  • Competing for cash prizes
  • getting their name out and showcasing their talents on a public stage

Public wins by

  • obtaining many applications to help them engage with government
  • gaining transparency into government

There’s no doubt valuable apps emerge from these contests, but what happens after the novelty of the contest wears off? This can’t be just a once and for all event, then everyone goes home and things revert back to the way they were. How do you sustain the viability of this relationship so value is still being created in the long term?

Before answering this question, there are several challenges that must be addressed:

1. Who is going to maintain these apps?

The GovTech article mentions that most of these apps don’t get updated after its release because government lacks the resources and developers lack the motivation. It doesn’t make sense for developers to keep playing if they can’t generate revenue and it’s very difficult to monetize off of apps given to the public.

2. How do we get through the “valley of disinterest”?

Former DC CTO Bryan Sivak believes open data has lost some of its luster from a few years ago, dropping from the “peak of inflated expectation” to the “valley of disinterest.” Now that the hype has subsided, are we still interested in this type of model?

3. Not enough data is being offered by government

Daniel Odio, CEO of a mobile Web consulting firm, envisions “dazzling possibilities for private-sector mash-ups… but doesn’t think enough open data is offered.” Ideally, data should be delivered to the public before they have to ask for it, but we’re still a long ways off from realizing that potential.

4. There’s a lot of “dirty data” out there

The article also cites a common frustration among developers trying to work with sloppy, inaccurate or unreliable data. A lot of times agencies are just pushing data out for data’s sake, and if it’s not carefully inspected for accuracy or if it’s not in a usable format, then developers can’t do much with it.

I’d like to add a few more challenges to this list

5. Cultural shift required

Technologically speaking, making data available is easy. There are plenty of tools available to help government push out data in formats that can be easily consumed by the public. The bigger challenge tends to be cultural. It requires a shift in the way government thinks about their data, and there are still a lot of agencies who aren’t ready for this shift.

6. People want quality, not quantity

It makes great PR to brag about hundreds of apps being developed with open data, but how many of them would actually be used by the public? Do we as consumers really want 52 apps telling us where the nearby bus stops are? Sure, it’s not up to government to decide what’s valuable or not, but if you get 300 apps from a contest and only a handful get used, the value of your efforts might be a bit overstated.

7. Can the networks support it?

One of the most frustrating things for a mobile user is to open up an app and wait and wait and wait. Carriers are promoting 4G, but many people don’t have devices that make it worth their time and battery life. For now, 3G is still predominant and if you have a data intensive app, waiting too long is one of the fastest ways to lose interested users.

8.  Are we creating the next wave of the digital divide?

Smartphones are increasing exponentially, but the overall market share of iOS, Android and Blackberry devices is still a minority. Obviously, certain demographics are adopting smartphones at a much faster rate than others, so if government is offering innovative ways to access data that can only be experienced by certain demographics, are we essentially creating a new digital divide?

In the long term, I think the general idea of open data with private partnerships is sustainable, but maybe not in the form of contests. It would have to be a concerted effort with long term incentives for all stakeholders involved. The challenges will make it more difficult, but if true value is being created, the benefits can overcome these challenges.

The Most Important Change in Twitter’s Redesign

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, Twitter redesigned its homepage, going from

to

One of the biggest elements they removed was Trending Topics. This was a feature that was front and center in Twitter’s second redesign, showing what was popular by the minute, day or week. Then in the third redesign, Trending Topics shrunk to a small, unobtrusive line. Now in the fourth iteration, it’s gone.

Thank goodness.

Removing the trending topics from the Twitter homepage is a great move because sometimes there are inappropriate or goofy topics that would deduct serious integrity points, tarnishing the site’s reputation as a valuable communication tool.

Hashtags like #itsnotcheating or #imsinglebecause would dominate trending topics, not because this was the most important thing happening on Twitter, but because a small community of Twitter users had way too much to say about it.

For the record, I have no problem with trending topics. I use them to keep track of the relevant topics going on in the world. The difference is I know the distinction between an important event unfolding in real time and a demographic flooding their playful banter onto the social network.

However, if you’re trying to convince your executive sponsors that Twitter would add value to your agency, you won’t be doing yourself a favor by pulling up Twitter.com and showing #yallneedtobreakup#sincewebeinghonest, or #youlookedgooduntil as the most talked about topics on the site.

So now when you visit Twitter.com, you see a background image of the world, implying its importance on a global scale (deservedly so, especially with recent events in Egypt, Libya, Japan, and Pakistan). The tagline is “Follow your interests”, showing the customization of its real time feed according to the topics you care about. For the first time since the original homepage, it brings back a personal feel by mentioning your friends and favorite celebrities, moving away from “see what people are saying” or “discover what’s happening” type of impersonal message.

As a result, I think the homepage is much more presentable to my executive management and with other stakeholders contemplating its use as an official government communication tool.

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