Curtis Chang, Creator of Homeless SCC App, Second Prize @ FCC and Knight Foundation Apps for Communities Challenge

Our second profile of developers who have contributed apps to federal challenges. The first profile was on Brad Larson.

Developer: Curtis Chang

Bio: Curtis Chang is the CEO and founder of Consulting Within Reach (CWR), a firm that works predominately with nonprofits and government agencies. He maintains expertise in the realm of social entrepreneurship and innovation, writing for both the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge and Stanford Social Innovation Review.

App in Focus: Homeless SCC
Federal Citizen App Program: FCC and Knight Foundation Apps for Communities Challenge
Recognition: 2nd Prize

Description of the App: Frontline agency staff members during the referral process enter the profile of a client which then matches them to a provider that best serves their needs. The application shares useful information on how to reach service providers, up to date services available, while also tracking all referrals made. Ultimately, it streamlines the process for homeless referrals, and captures useful information for service providers and government agencies to better collaborate.

Who is the App Intended to Serve: The target audience for the Homeless SCC app is frontline staff assisting the homeless, as well as the government and philanthropic agencies.

Why was the app developed: The motivation for the app stemmed from the widespread recognition that many of the most challenging social issues are complex, constantly changing, and often have duplication. The organizations serving the County’s homeless had little data compiled, and furthermore had little idea what others were doing. The app emerged as a response to the understanding that the public sectors and these organizations need a rational way to better collaborate; having data is essential to planning and collaborating effectively. CWR developed the app with funding from private sources with an interest in homelessness. CWR is a private entity, therefore although they conduct work seeking to improve and address challenges in society, they must also think about how to cover development costs.

How was the availability of the app communicated to potential users: CWR worked with the County, who endorsed the application but did not mandate its usage. There was no real incentive for usage. To these ends, the consulting firm produced and conducted several presentations, individual reach-outs/visits, and mobilized a ‘sales team’. This was gauged as partially successful.

What were the key lessons learned during the development of the app: 1) There is a need for someone (e.g. a foundation, influencer, etc) or public agency with a big stick or a big carrot, or even better both with the authority to mandate and build urgency to ultimately spur usage of the application. 2) The amount of work it took to publicize and market the app is not seen as the best method moving forward. The consulting firm itself ate the cost of these efforts. It is not a sustainable process to have the developers themselves hitting the pavement. 3) The technology was the easiest part, building a coalition and getting the app in the hands of users is challenging. Public agencies should provide support and access to their networks for diffusing apps into communities. 4) Public agencies should do more to stay involved with the app developers after competitions so as to learn from their efforts, support them, and work on future iterations of the app.

What recommendations do you have for government agencies that are trying to incentivize the creation of citizen apps and the leveraging of open data programs:

  • Cash-prizes very important. Usually these apps have been developed out of some cause-motivation or low-budget gig. Nice to have development costs covered by prize winnings.
  • Follow-up motivation and commitment on the part of federal agencies to publicize and market these apps.
  • Federal programs need to market the apps submitted, as app developers are looking at this as a viable marketing platform.
  • Don’t put property rights on the apps developed for the competition. Too much burden.
  • Public agencies who collaborate foundations to develop challenges is seen as attractive.
  • As a consulting firm, they target competitions where a suitable app is already developed. Developing an app for a particular competition is pretty risky.

What do you plan on doing next with the Homeless SCC app, and your interest in app development for tackling social and technical problems: The Homeless SCC app model has already been replicated in Northern California and its outdoor youth programs. In this case, organizations and programs are mandated to use the app. In addition, Santa Clara County has expressed interest in developing a similar application for networking local church services for recently released prisoners.

 

Policy Informatics Talk at Universidade do Minho – April 2012

On, April 13, I will deliver a research talk at the Department of Information Systems, University of Minho (in Guimarães). The title of my talk is Policy Informatics: Embracing Complexity, Information, and Systems. The talk will feature my recent work on policy informatics and the policy informatics book project. I will also briefly highlight work featured in my recent book, Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas Within Your Organization (University of Toronto Press, 2011). I would like to thank my colleague, and friend, Isabel Ramos for organizing my visit to Guimarães. During this visit to Portugal, I will also be giving a talk at the IGU Commission on Geography of Governance Annual Conference 2012 (April 12).

Developing Innovative Apps for Challenges: A Series of Interviews with App Developers

Over the next few weeks, my research team and I will be interviewing prominent App Developers. All interviewees contributed apps for various challenges run by Federal agencies (e.g. the FCC/Knight Foundation Apps for Communities Challenge, NLM Show Off Your Apps Challenge, etc), and, in most cases, even received prizes and recognition for their apps. These interviews are being conducted for our project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology: Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies, which has received funding from the IBM Center for the Business of Government. When we complete interviews, and conditional on receiving permission from the interviewee, I will be featuring the developer, their app, and key take-a-ways from the conversation on my blog. Below is a list of developers who we have interviewed to date:

This is an exciting project and we are learning a lot from our interviews. Our goal is to arrive at actionable knowledge that will increase the effectiveness of challenges run by federal agencies. In addition to publishing our findings in a report, we will be writing several smaller pieces for various outlets. If you are interested in receiving a copy of our report, please contact us at the Metropolitan Institute.

Please send me an email, if:

  • you are App Developer and would like to be interviewed for this project (our highest priority is to interview developers who have contributed to various challenges sponsored by federal agencies)
  • you use an app that was developed for a government challenge
  • you have connections within the federal government that can connect us with agency personnel that designed (or managed) challenges

 

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds through Participatory Platforms – Planetizen

My article on Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds through Participatory Platforms was published on Planetizen.  The future of design and planning is certain to be around participatory platforms, designers and planners should embrace these platforms and leverage their potential towards designing smart(er) cities through open, inclusive, and collaborative approaches.Planners need to learn how to orchestrate participation on these platforms so as to arrive at plans that are representative of community needs and within scope, budget, and resource constraints. Failure to achieve this will result in plans that fall prey to the foolishness or the rowdiness of crowds. I outline five simple guidelines to consider. To read more, click here - LINK

Citizen Apps to Solve Complex Urban Problems – Journal of Urban Technology

I have a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban Technology. Co-authored with Akshay Bhagwatwar (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University) this paper looks at how citizen apps are employed to solve complex urban problems.

Abstract:

Tackling complex urban problems requires us to examine and leverage diverse sources of information. Today, cities of all kinds and sizes capture a large amount of information in real-time. Data is captured on transportation patterns, electricity and water consumption, citizen use of government services (e.g. parking meters), and even on weather events. Through open data initiatives, government agencies are making information available to citizens. In turn, citizens are building applications that exploit this information to solve local urban problems. Citizens are also building platforms where they can share information regarding government services. Information that was previously unavailable is now being used to gauge quality of services, choose services, and report illegal and unethical behaviors (e.g. requesting bribes). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper to examine the range of citizen applications (‘citizen apps’) targeted to solve urban issues and their ensuing impacts on planning, decision-making, problem solving, and urban governance. We examine citizen apps that address a wide range of urban issues from those that solve public transportation challenges to those advance management public utilities and services and even public safety.

Citation: Desouza, K.C., and Bhagwatwar, A. “Opening up Information for Tackling Complex Urban Problems:  A Study of Citizen Apps,” Journal of Urban Technology, Forthcoming.

Investigative Journalism

Over the next few months, I will be working with a team of researchers, graduate students, and practitioners to study the resiliency of local networks to crises (and catastrophic disasters) using a journalistic lens. Through interviewing subjects, we hope to collect a series of videos that can be used for traditional research analysis, but can also make for interesting teaching material, weblogs, etc.

Metropolitan Institute Partnership with German Marshall Fund Awarded $2.5 million Grant

Christmas came early for us at the Metropolitan Institute!  We were recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD chose the  German Marshall Fund (GMF) partnership as the recipient of the $2.5 million award to manage the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) fellowship program. GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy Program leads a partnership that includes Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs and the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. My colleague, Joe Schilling, Associate Director at the Metropolitan Institute, will serve as the principle investigator on this three-year project.

Press Releases:

IBM Center for the Business of Government Grant: Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology

I have received a grant from the IBM Center for the Business of Government for my research project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology:  Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies. This project will be conducted as part of the policy informatics portfolio at the Metropolitan Institute.

Most US federal agencies have embraced President Obama's vision for 1) greater transparency, 2) increased citizen participation, and 3) greater collaboration. A critical outcome of these initiatives is the willingness of federal agencies to engage with citizens around open-data initiatives and the creation of technology for solving public policy problems - 'citizen apps.' We are witnessing an increasing proliferation of 'citizen apps', i.e. applications designed by citizens and developers to solve public policy challenges. Federal agencies are not only opening up data reservoirs, but are also incentivizing the development of citizen apps through competitions. In this research project, we propose to study citizen apps and the federal programs that fostered (incentivized) their creation.

There are many reasons why it is beneficial to involve citizens in the governance process. One, it opens up problem solving opportunities where citizens can participate. Second, it serves as a forum to increase the diversity of thought and knowledge brought to a problem. This increases the potential for innovation by engaging many minds to solve complex problems. Citizen participation leads to greater collective intelligence and hopefully more robust solutions for social issues. Third, it allows citizens to solve problems that a government agency might be challenged to address. Finally, it empowers the vision set forth by former President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Citizen app programs normally come in two broad flavors. One set of citizen app programs are fueled by government open-data initiatives. In these cases, a government agency makes data available to the public and the public in turn responds by using this data creatively to generate technologies (the apps) that better the lives of citizens. The second set of citizen app programs is where a government agency issues a challenge or problem to the public. The public then responds by building solutions to the challenge. In this case, the government may incentivize the development of the apps through issue of recognition prizes and funding. This success of both types of citizen app programs depends on the dynamic collaboration of government agencies, app developers, and the citizenry. To date, our knowledge on what makes for successful collaboration among these three players is limited.

There are a number of design considerations that need to be addressed when building citizen app programs from the nature of incentives provided to goals of the apps, the motivations that drive citizens to create the apps, and how (and where) to deploy the apps, the involvement by the agency (e.g. staff time to interact with app developers), level and amount of data availability, and creation of problem-solving communities and forums, among others. In this research project, we will uncover design considerations that government executives need to bear in mind as they initiate citizen app programs. We will also compare and contrast citizen app programs to arrive at a set of best practices by looking at critical success factors that led to citizen app programs that were highly successful.

Our research project will thoroughly inventory and study the range of citizen apps to understand the typology of the apps, the data they use, the problems they address, the motivation of the designers, the usage by citizens, and the impact on government and governance. We propose to discover and define the inter-relations between the government agencies, the app developers, and the citizens. While our focus will be on studying citizen apps generated out of programs commissioned by the federal government, we will also look at programs started by progressive states (e.g. New York, California, etc).

The results of the final report will benefit public sector government executives, public managers, and the public-at-large in several ways: 1) it will enable government executives to avoid common pitfalls when incentivizing citizen app programs (for e.g. placing emphasis on the frontend, i.e. the creation of apps, and ignoring the more challenging aspect of ensuring that the apps are diffused into the agency's work practices or to citizens); 2) it will enable public managers to understand the landscape of citizen apps, the motivations of citizens who create them, and the factors that drive their usage; and 3) it will enable federal agencies to better engage citizens into the policy setting process through supporting technology development thereby increasing the chances of more effective solution generation for policy problems.