During the Government 2,0 Expo in D.C., the winners of the Apps for America contest were selected, with much cheering and enthusiasm on Twitter and other social media following closely this event in D.C.
I went through the three winners and looked at the list of submissions, which were 46, one less than the Apps for Democracy contest launched last year in DC. Are they enough? Are they too few? Do they show the right direction for the future?
As usual, numbers can be looked at both ways. This is certainly the first time such a contest takes place at federal level, and it was not a government initiative, but one launched by Sunlight Labs and sponsored by Google, O’Reilly media and a few others. So it probably lacked the official endorsement of the federal government, but certainly enjoyed quite some publicity, in conjunction with the Gov 2.0 Summit marketing and all the buzz around data.gov. If one looks at the half-full glass, this indicates that there are developers out there who are up to the challenge posed by data.gov and others. What we see are just the first, baby steps, showing the potential.
On the downside, the number of applications may look small, and the characteristics of the winning applications relatively straightforward. The winners, picked up through popular vote, were:
- Datamasher, which allows users to “combine different data sets in interesting ways and create their own custom rankings of the states”.
- Govpulse, which allows users to search the Federal register by location, topic, agency, date etc.
- Thisweknow, which – in its current implementation – focuses on few nationwide data sets (wih a spatial component) from six different agencies in the data.gov catalog, but aims to model the entire data.gov catalog and make it available to the public using Semantic Web standards as a large-scale online database
While applications were not meant to do anything else than proving a concept, yet winners are not terribly impressive. Datamasher provides tools that may end up being part of data.gov itself, govpulse refers to a single database, and Thisweknow – like most semantic web efforts – can prove its real value only by significantly scaling up.
So, yes, it is fair to say I am not impressed. I would expect mashups between data.gov or other government data sets and external, non-government information, especially because this initiative was not owned by government and one could expect some greater room for maneuver to prove the concept.
The real question is whether contests for open data (like ShowUsABetterWay) or mash-up applications (like this one) are approaching their expiry date and there is a need for something new or for new ways to stimulate creativity and imagination.
Future contests should really push (and award) for how to use government data in conjunction with non-government data, including how to leverage data created by social networks (such as ratings). It would also be useful to inject a little bit more purpose: what problem would a mash-up solve? Why should that entice people to create more mash-ups? Finally, a closer connection with government services would help: how does a mash up help government deliver a better service? And how can one combine services and not only information across sectors and communities?
Mash-up application contests are becoming stale: it is time to move on.