Blog post

Government Application Contests: Between Enthusiasm and Fanaticism

By Andrea Di Maio | March 07, 2010 | 5 Comments

open government data

More and more jurisdictions at all levels of government are opening their data for public consumption over the web and many have launched or are launching application development contests for programmers to create new applications that either leverage that data or just show new capabilities.

In several occasions I have been critical of mashup and application contests (see here), and I have received my fair share of pushback on this (see here).

In my humble opinion, there are two main reasons to be cautious:

  1. Contests so far have generated relatively few ideas, most of which either relate to the realm of politics (e.g. how to map funding to politicians to what they do) or to relatively narrow areas, such as crime-related information. I have not yet seen anything extraordinary that would have a significant impact on service levels.
  2. Contestants are necessarily either professional programmers, working for a vendor or self employed, or geeks. My contention is neither category is very likely to be hugely representative of the public at large.

A good example of application contest is the one that the US Army has just launched, where contestants are limited to “active-duty Soldiers, Army Reserve and Army National Guard on active duty, and Army civilians who enroll”, with a maximum of 100 individuals. This is clearly far more focused that the average application contest I have seen elsewhere.

It is great to welcome these contests with enthusiasm, because they will help advance the agenda of open government. At the same time, there is no point in being fanatic about them, as limitations and drawbacks are already evident and should help everybody involved learn something rather than be in denial.

Comments are closed


  • david osimo says:

    Andrea, I share your doubts but think there is more into contest than what you see. It’s not just a hype, it’s a wide-ranging switch towards ex post funding in policy, enabled by low costs of development and made necessary by complexity. I blogged about this recently:

    Of course impact is limited, but please, just compare the 35 applications developed by with 20K euros funding, with the costs of traditional e-gov applications.

    In addition, initiatives such as social innovation camp bring together geeks and civil society to develop applications that serve those in real need (

  • Jeremy says:

    I dont understand, so that a fanaticism or Enthusiasm? 🙂

  • Quite interesting the idea of the US Army. I think one of the faults that other contests have is not taking care of the basic rule in service co-production: You can not co-produce a service without count with the community which is involved in the service. A community-driven approach to application contests is certainly more focused and produce an environment wich useful results are more possible.

  • I’d say the US Army’s approach is understandable provided the main goal is spending some money. If they are really seeking ideas, then such limitations are outright stupid – IMHO.

  • Craig thomler says:

    Hi Andrea,

    I agree with you that these types of competition require caution.

    They have useful value in illustrating to ‘in the box’ thinkers that there is significant underexploited value in government data and different ways whereby value can be extracted and the public better served.

    However there are few examples where sustainable applications have been delivered (partially as they are so new a concept – granted) and many have restrictions that limit the value that can be derived (such as how the Victorian competition that recently launched in Australia is limited to Victorian residents, excluding any of the potential value that people outside of Victoria could generate for the ultimate benefit of Victorian residents).

    In my view these competitions are necessary for promotional and illustrative purposes to encourage greater release of publc data in usable formats and licenses but in the longer term governments will need more sustainable forms of encouragement to generate valuable public goods.