I. A Brief History of Governments Crowdsourcing Innovation
In 1714, British Parliament launched a competition to find the best method for determining longitude at sea (£15,000+ was awarded to a rural clockmaker)(note 1). More recently, in 2004, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) conducted a driverless race in the Mojave Desert to reinvigorate research into autonomous vehicles (note 2). And, NYC BigApps created a nationwide model for data competitions at the city-level.
II. The Success of NYC BigApps in Driving Civic Innovation
(A) BigApps’ Brief History
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (HBS ’66) launched “NYC BigApps,” a crowd-sourced application development competition, in 2009 (note 3). BigApps have included real-time subway alerts; bicyclist injury reporting; a parking space finder; and a geo-locator for joining pick-up basketball games. Bloomberg observed, “in four years, NYC BigApps has helped launch nearly 300 new apps and made government more transparent and accountable” (note 4). The competition distributed NYC problems to a much wider pool; civic-hacker motivations are more varied than technocrats; they form unusual cross-functional teams; and they produce a more distributed set of solutions (note 5).
(B) Spurring the Open Data Movement
BigApps coincided with civic “Big Data.” Paralleling the explosion of consumer data from smartphones, city data exploded through automating processes, tagging vehicles with transponders, and digitizing records. Whereas BigApps 2009 was based on limited data, published specifically for the competition, by 2013, the competition was running on an open, online platform millions of rows of data (NYC OpenData) (note 6). BigApps directly led to the passage of the NYC Open Data.
(C) Changing the Way the City Develops Citizen-Facing Applications
BigApps has influenced the way that NYC develops citizen-facing applications. The NYC New Business Atlas was piloted in an expedited, agile process, including soliciting wireframe feedback from small business owners (note 7). Internal experts may be best situated to find technical solutions, but end-users may be more talented at problem identification (note 8). Poetz & Schreier conducted a study of internal and external idea generation at a baby-products company, and executives blindly scored the results (note 9). The external users scored higher on creativity, and lower on technical feasibility, demonstrating the complementary value including external users and internal experts on product design (note 10). NYC should increase its agile process, keep citizens involved in problem identification and solution design.
NYC’s Open Data Law allows civic-hackers to broadly explore and develop new solutions. The tech industry is often influenced by wealthy, well-educated, homogenous set of young-to-middle-aged men (see Uber, Google). Unfortunately, this group is not always aware of the issues that face a city’s most vulnerable citizens, including affordable housing and access to healthcare. If crowdsourcing is meant to identify problems and creative solutions to social ills, individuals intimately familiar with those problems should be involved in the civic-hacker teams. To facilitate this, the city should require diverse, early user testing, among citizens representing all five boroughs.
Early efforts by governments to crowdsource problems contracted-out government identified problems for citizen-identified solutions. In contrast, the Open Data movement has given citizen-hackers more ability to investigate and identify problems. This new paradigm is likely to result in more responsive local governments.
V. Questions for Consideration
- What types of civic problems may be too sensitive or mission-critical for civic-hacker generated solutions?
- Civic-hacker led development may lead to the reallocation of city resources and focus from underserved communities to communities sophisticated in data investigation and software development. How do cities ensure that civic-hacker innovation does not drive further growth of inequality?
- Boudrea, K and Lahkani, K. “Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner.” Harvard Business Review, April 2013.
- Gerrish, S and Scott, K. “How Smart Machines Think.” MIT Press, 2018. Chapter 2.
- NYC Economic Development Corporation. “NYC BIgApps Past Competitors.”Available online: https://www.nycedc.com/services/nyc-bigapps/past-competitions
- Press Release. “Mayor Bloomberg Announces Winners of NYC BigApps, Fourth Annual Competition to Create Apps Using City Data.” 20 June 2013. Available online; https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/215-13/mayor-bloomberg-winners-nyc-bigapps-fourth-annual-competition-create-apps-using
- MacCormack, A, et al. “Spurring Innovation Through Competitions.” MIT Solan Management Review. Vol. 55 No. 1. Fall 2013.
- NYC OpenData. Available online: https://opendata.cityofnewyork.us/
- NYC Small Business Atlas. Available online: https://maps.nyc.gov/businessatlas/
- Poetz, M and Schreier, M. “The Value of Crowdsourcing: Can Users Really Compete With Professionals in Generating New Product Ideas.” Journal of Product Innovation Management. Vol. 29 No. 2. 2012.