New York City BigApps Winners Show How Civic Tech Is Maturing

The lesson for cities struggling to harness the power of data: Start with the problem.

Winners of the latest version of New York City's BigApps Challenge, announced Thursday, show how tough lessons from the first generation of city apps contests are now helping to creating civic value and community.

New York's experience will help demonstrate to mayors around the world how to get the most social impact and economic value from government data: Start with the civic problem you want to target, then find the data, partners and community to make the changes.

"The story of the evolution of BigApps is one about how the competition and this project has morphed over the years so that what gets developed results in real outcomes for everyday New Yorkers, with tangible resources and innovation that improve their lives," Maria Torres Springer, head of the city's Economic Development Corp. told The Huffington Post.

"When we started this, it was about what we can do for tech," Springer continued. "We aggregated city data and put it out there to see what tech community could build. In the past couple years, that question has been turned around: What can tech do for New Yorkers? That's why you'll see in this year's competition."

The evolution brings civic apps contests a long way from the Washington, D.C., local government's "Apps for Democracy" contest in 2008, which hinted at the promise of opening up data for public benefit, but failed to deliver meaningful long-term social change or services.

Below are this year's BigApps winners for affordable housing, zero waste, connecting cities, and civic engagement, each of which will receive $25,000, and two judge's choice winners, each of which will receive $10,000.

"This is not just about building apps, but how we engage the tech community, government, and New Yorkers in a process to improve their lives," said Springer.

This year, New York hosted 16 events focused on BigApps, with more than 1,200 attendees.

Winning BigApps doesn't mean that a given idea will work out in the long term. Some past winners of New York's contest, including Embark, HealthyOut, Ontodia and Poncho, have endured. Many others have not -- as is the case for many startups.

When asked about the longer-term sustainability issues that have plagued apps developed in these kinds of contests, Springer emphasized the endurance of apps like Hopscotch, which helps kids learn how to code, and HeatSeak, which is being installed in buildings across the city.

"It's shortsighted to think value can be measured by how far a particular winner has come," Springer said.

Springer also highlighted the positive impact of BigApps on the evolution of open government data in New York City -- that is, online city data that's structured and free to download and reuse.

"We'd like to think part of that has changed was somewhat inspired by BigApps," Springer said. 'To the extent that someone has a question that needs to be answered, now they don't have to go to door."

In that way of thinking, opening up data, reducing "data poverty" in communities, and applying it toward solving civic issues doesn't stop with an app.

"Something like this is also a pretty profound culture change within municipal government," Springer said. "That's good for New Yorkers and startups."

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