Has New York City’s Civic Tech Movement Turned a Corner?

This year, the BigApps contest in New York has a new agenda reflecting some introspection on the value of civic technology.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg chatting up BigApp’s hackers. Photo credit: BigApps

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“After a while,” says Noel Hidalgo, “how many more transit apps do you need?”

Indeed, the where’s that bus? nature of so much civic software has raised questions aplenty in recent years about whether civic innovation is all it’s cracked up to be. Despite supposedly epic return on investment, D.C. claimed a 4,000% return on its civic app contest Apps for Democracy, critics say the products that come of these contests are lightly used by the public and often, irrelevant. Yes, these critics say, waiting for the bus is an annoying moment of friction between private citizens and the public sector, but is knowing how long you will be waiting really going to change anything in the big picture?

Enter NYC BigApps. Today is the last day to enter the five-year-old contest, widely considered the shining jewel of civic apps competition. The competition, powered by the collaboration platform CollabFinder, is a project of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and other private-sector partners, including ebay, the design company Pentagram and BMW’s urban mobility and transportation-focused venture capital company, BMW i. And this year, it has brought in Noel Hidalgo, now the New York City program manager for Code for America, another collaborator, to tackle the relevancy issue.

Part of Hidalgo’s strategy is zeroing in on four broad areas of public interest to focus on: Jobs & Economic Mobility; Energy, Environment, and Resilience; Lifelong Learning; and Healthy Living (ones that overlap, in part, with the “tech campus” being built on Roosevelt Island. Another part, perhaps more critical, is partnering with a handful of organizations to write problems briefs so that hackers know what to take on. “When we’re thinking about the future and trying to get developers to do good and solve problems,” says Hidalgo, “you need to have subject matter experts.”

This is an approach borrowed from the tech “accelerators” popping up all over. People with bright ideas are paired with mentors, provided with beta testers, and given support that consists of both money and time. This time around, winners of the BigApps challenge will be made part of the Founders Network, a private community of startup creators. Some will get demo slots at the hugely popular New York Tech Meetup. They’ll be offered office space too. (Not to mention the top prize is $35,000, of a total $150,000 at stake.)

The new BigApps celebrates the idea that part of the challenge is figuring out which apps should exists at all by talking with the communities who will eventually be using them. Or, as Tracy Viselli of Virginia’s Action Alexandria community site recently put it in an interview, “If you’re doing civic hacking locally, you have to work with people who know the community, and that’s not necessarily civic hackers.”

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: new york cityappscivic techcode for america

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