New York City frees government data for app contest

Following on the heels of a movement to make government transparent with technology, New York City is freeing more than 170 data sets from city agencies and hosting a competition for the best apps.They city has partnered with ChallengePost, a New York-based startup backed by Twitter investor Betaworks, that puts together contests. Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, Betaworks’ John Borthwick, Jason Calacanis and Esther Dyson are among the judges. The winner gets $5,000 in prizes and a dinner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The city was short on specifics for what it’s looking for: “We want to get the public involved in telling us what they want to see,” said Kristy Sundjaja, vice president of media, green, and emerging technology at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “We don’t want to constrain our talented developer community.”

The data available to competitors includes traffic updates, restaurant inspections and city budget information. The city was also clear that the winner keeps the intellectual property and has the freedom of turning it into a for-profit business later on. However, the government can post submissions for the length of the competition and for one year afterward.

The competition taps into several trends — both local and federal government agencies are gradually releasing data in ways that people can manipulate and use for public good. San Francisco launched in August and is also holding a competition. U.S. President Barack Obama also moved to make federal spending more transparent and hired both a chief information officer and a chief technology officer.

The second trend is the use of open competitions to motivate developers to create new products. Netflix recently awarded a $1 million prize to improve its movie recommendation algorithms after a three-year run. ChallengePost is capitalizing on this by hosting competitions of all sizes while taking an 8 percent share of the prize money offered. Founder Brandon Kessler has argued that competition and public recognition can often motivate people to solve problems better than pure financial compensation.

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