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