District readies the move beyond app contests

“It’s been more than eighteen months since Apps for Democracy,” Peter Corbett, co-founder and CEO of iStrategyLabs said to a crowd gathered at O’Reilly Media’s Gov 2.0 Expo last month, “And now its time to look beyond app contests.”

The story is widely known inside most government technology circles, but eighteen months ago, iStrategyLabs – which is a digital marketing firm based in DC, San Francisco and New York City – devised a way for then DC CTO, Vivek Kundra, to better utilize the city’s newly created open data catalog. They would allow developers and coders to build iPhone, Facebook and Web applications through data provided by the city and hold a contest with a small cash prize. The idea yielded forty-seven apps, worth an estimated $2.3 million dollars. And the District’s bill? $50,000.

It was a watershed moment.

Since then, other branches of the federal government, US cities and a growing list of international apps contests have sprung from this idea. From Portland, Oregon to the World Bank, to the US Military, app contests have given rise to “the open data movement” and a concept known as “civic hacking.”

“App contests are a great way to create civic hacker networks, but it’s not just about the developers,” Corbett said. “The next step is to incorporate designers, writers and other creatives to build Civic Innovator Networks.”

And it was with this in mind iStrategyLabs, in combination with Shiny Heart Ventures, began planning DCWEEK, or Digital Capital Week. The ten-day festival is designed to promote digital literacy, drive economic (re)development and improve the interconnectedness of Washington, D.C. residents and their government. Similar to Austin, Texas’ SXSW festival (where live performances are sprawled throughout the city, utilizing traditional venues and barbershops alike), DCWEEK will have distributed events across the District with a few anchor locations serving as the main organizers’ headquarters.

For those who think ten days would be a hard schedule to fill for a “tech conference,” well, they don’t understand the rip current of ambitious, successful and young geeks and entrepreneurs that flourish in the shadows of Capital Hill. Although Corbett and others admit they’re flying by the seat of their preverbal pants, the schedule for DCWEEK includes nearly 130 events, sessions, and meetups – most of which has happened organically through participant suggestions and volunteers.

In an earlier interview Mr. Corbett said that as organizers, their main role would be to curate and mobilize the vast array of skill sets they hoped to attract. Given the kinds of projects and types of individuals involved, that mobilization surely will be realized.

Among the more ambitious projects already being cultivated, is a Pop-up Lab and pro bono consulting clinic, slated to run for the life of the festival. The H Street Pop-up Lab will turn a vacant library kiosk into a temporary innovation lab for creatives, technologists and citizens to experiment with new things, according to the project description. The project is part of a neuveau term known as “temporary urbanism.”

Ideally, the space could be turned temporarily into learning labs for area residents, demonstrating ways other parts of DC could develop community revitalization pilots into on-going programs. According to a list of required resources, ten volunteers are needed to clean and beautify the space and a minimal infrastructure build-out of furniture, lighting and Wi-Fi will also be required. Organizers are still working on the logistics with the city in using the space, but according to Mr. Corbett, “The idea is to envision new uses (of vacant real estate) in low-risk ways.”

To aid with some of those unknowns, specifically the Wi-Fi, the DCWEEK team announced yesterday that 4G WiMAX provider, CLEAR, would connect users at the festival’s flagship stage, the UMC Conference Center. Now, the event’s 4,000 attendees will be served their broadband fix and a $30,000 bill is being avoided, the announcement said.

Coming out of DCWEEK, Corbett hopes to prove the existence of a new kind of marketplace. This Civic Innovation Marketplace will be a source for insights, Corbett hopes, where the tech community can help bridge non-profits and government with the private sector in unconventional ways.

“These civic hacker networks can be pretty small, but their impact is incredible. People are passionate about building better,” Corbett said.

The challenge other cities are facing, and one DC is looking to solve with DCWEEK, is how to refine the process and making it sustainable after the glamour of the app contest fades.

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