I ran across a year-old article I had bookmarked from GovTech entitled “Do Apps for Democracy and Other Contests Create Sustainable Applications?” ( via Justin Massa)

For the past two years, innovation contests have swept the country in a contagious craze, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, from San Francisco to Portland. Even first lady Michelle Obama got in on the action in March when she launched Apps for Healthy Kids as part of her campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In the age of Government 2.0, these catchy contests thrive due to a simple concept: To improve transparency, governments release hundreds of public-sector data sets, which developers then use to create Web-based applications. The best apps win big prizes. The public reaps the rewards of new apps that help them get around New York’s subway system or navigate historical sites in the nation’s capital.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win situation for all. But local buzz only lasts for so long, especially when a winning app doesn’t always lead to a long-term government contract.

…the contests let city officials advertise transparency efforts and collaborate with citizens to address local issues. But because applications submitted in the competitions don’t go through normal procurement channels, [Jay] Nath [manager of innovation for San Francisco] said, cities cannot use them as “official” apps. That means the shelf life of the winning app is left in the hands of the developers.

Just ask Brian Sobel, one of the three developers of the website iLive.at, where users can learn about a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by plugging in an address. After winning the top individual prize for the district’s first Apps for Democracy contest, he remembers meeting the mayor and attending press conferences. But eventually the hoopla died down. And without any incentives to keep the data up-to-date, he said, the free site has “gone kind of stale.”

“We produced something, and we were part of this whole to-do,” he said. “That was great. But there was no next step, so we all went back to our gainfully employed ventures. They could have asked us to buy a next phase of the project, but they didn’t because they didn’t have the infrastructure set up for that.”

At the time, I left this note in Google Reader:

Are these contests done in concert with other initiatives (like CDBGs)? Are they engaging horizontally (community groups and social orgs) or just vertically (coders)? I’m at the periphery of the pubdata movement, but I fail to see broad engagement (tongue in cheek: as measured by nobody asking me about it)

Are these contests structured (do a funding round of engagement, then coding, then deployment and evaluation)? Do the contest questions/project descriptions talk about how the project was designed and the structure for which it will be completed or is the focus just on the final product? As someone who designs and evaluates capacity building grants, I’ve found greater success by scrutinizing the workplan more than the impact statement. Of course, overpromising and underfunding is no surprise in the social sector.