“Data, data, data! I cannot make bricks without clay!”

Sherlock Holmes

A Practical Guide for Organizing a Civic Apps Competition

Government agencies are increasingly being called upon to publish data as a means to increase transparency, deliver government services more efficiently, and innovate business. Civic Apps Competitions (CACs) further these goals by providing incentives and a platform for software programmers to build innovative applications (“apps”) using open government data. Departments at all levels are proactively using technology to share their data with the public, through the “low tech” release of spreadsheet or database files to the “high tech” release of data through Application Programming Interfaces (API) and associated “apps competitions.”

While the technological problems of these competitions are (largely) solved—a plethora of content management systems and turn-key web software-as-service platforms can easily handle the requirements of submitting projects, collecting public votes, etc.—what has become important is ensuring that the outcomes of these competitions return value. Governments, civic activists, and software developers who have invested or are thinking of investing in open government data want answers to long-term questions. How, and under what conditions, do open data result in high-quality platforms relevant to problems at hand? Are the resulting applications sustainable in a way that will continue to deliver solutions over time? Do the competitions themselves foster transparency and engagement for a wide audience?

When Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office on May 16, 2010, he put launching a civic apps competition on his first 100 days checklist. Five weeks later, the Apps for Metro Chicago (A4MC) competition launched. When we started planning A4MC in late May, there were no formal agreements between any of the partners; by June, Mayor Emanuel was on the cover of the local daily paper, challenging civic coders to compete for $50,000 in prizes. We learned a lot. We’d like to share it.

This book is a practical guide to planning a civic apps competition (CAC). We aren’t just relying on our own experience with A4MC though; we surveyed 15 CACs hosted in the United States and Canada over the last three years. As a result, we’ve uncovered some surprising insights into what makes competitions successful. And, of course, we’ve got anecdotes of budget overruns and political infighting (and some fun success stories) to keep it interesting.

This Guide identifies a number of ways to ensure an apps competition delivers on the goals of accountability, government efficiency and economic innovation.

A note on the open government movement and the use of terms. Open government is a movement that demands transparency from governments regarding actions and decisions, increasing the government’s accountability. Open government data refers to the specific practice of publishing data collected by governments in order to facilitate transparency, create efficiencies and prime economic innovation. CACs are designed to kickstart the use of open government data. Throughout this guide, we’ll use the shorter-termed “open data” or “open civic data” when talking about open government data.

This Guide

This guide is broadly sectioned into four parts. We start off in Chapter 1 by giving a bit of history of Civic Apps Competitions and what critiques have been leveled at the competitions and their outcomes. In Chapter 2 we then challenge the cynics with what we see as benefits of CACs. If executed correctly and with the right expectations, competitions can set the stage for more civic interaction, better delivery of government services, and become a staging ground for improving private- and non-profit-business.

If you’re up and ready to start a competition, however, feel free to jump to Chapter 3. Here you’ll find a juicy discussion of translating benefits into goals and metrics. In a data-driven world, shouldn’t we have data by which to track the success of CACs? And, you’ll likely need hard numbers to report out to funders or government agencies. We give some ideas as to how to measure processes and outcomes. Chapter 4 discusses what it actually takes to run a competition, putting dollar figures to specific activities. A4MC, with prizes, cost over a quarter-million dollars. But there are ways to cut that number.

We then turn to nuts and bolts. What data works for CACs? Chapter 5 discusses different kinds of open government data and what’s likely to jumpstart your competition. Chapter 6 reveals the finer points of CACs—process, judging, rules, and the legal fine print.

Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 are summary chapters. We set aside Chapter 7 as a place to summarize some of the common roadblocks we and others encountered. Feel free to jump to this chapter if you’re in the middle of designing your own competition and want a quick checklist on what you might have missed. Chapter 8 speculates on the future for your competition and CACs in general.

Contact Us

We continue to be deeply interested in the potential for open government data to be harnessed for the common good. Virginia Carlson has worked in the government data world since starting Chicago’s first-ever public-serving DataBank at the University of Illinois-Chicago two decades ago. Look for her on the Board of Directors for the Association of Public Data Users, or on Twitter (@VL_Carlson). Kate Eyler-Werve gleefully seeks out disruptive technologies to work on and can project manage anything. You can find her at

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