NYC BigApps: Crowdsourcing Civic Innovation

In 2009, New York City launched the BigApps competition, inviting citizen-hackers to work together to create applications that improve the lives of New Yorkers. BigApps spurred a grass-roots movement for an Open Data law and served as a fecund source of ideas for the Mayor’s office. The City of New York should increasingly use design thinking processes for application development. In addition, BigApps should challenge citizen-hackers to produce solutions to diverse problems, beyond the quotidian experience of software developers.

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.

John Harrison, a British clockmaker, won the 1714 longitude prize for his development of the marine chronometer, with a prize value equivalent to $4M 2018. (Image source: Wikipedia)

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).

Mayor Bloomberg with BigApps winners (Image Source: NYC EDC).

(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.

Helping Hands, developed in NYC BIgApss 2013, includes tools to help individuals apply for health insurance. (Image source: NYC EDC)

III. Recommendations

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.

IV. Conclusion

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?


  1. Boudrea, K and Lahkani, K. “Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner.” Harvard Business Review, April 2013.
  2. Gerrish, S and Scott, K. “How Smart Machines Think.” MIT Press, 2018. Chapter 2.
  3. NYC Economic Development Corporation. “NYC BIgApps Past Competitors.”Available online:
  4. Press Release. “Mayor Bloomberg Announces Winners of NYC BigApps, Fourth Annual Competition to Create Apps Using City Data.” 20 June 2013. Available online;
  5. MacCormack, A, et al. “Spurring Innovation Through Competitions.” MIT Solan Management Review. Vol. 55 No. 1. Fall 2013.
  6. NYC OpenData. Available online:
  7. NYC Small Business Atlas. Available online:
  8. 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.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.


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Student comments on NYC BigApps: Crowdsourcing Civic Innovation

  1. In response to your second question – I can definitely see how this could actually widen the inequality in cities. While in theory it’s an incredible idea and would work in a perfect market – the market for this is most likely broken. Those with the skills and ability to come up with solutions to things they see as problems are likely going to come from an middle to upper homogeneous class of people. How do we ensure that those from lower income classes or those with less opportunity and privilege are having their voices heard to help solve problems that are relevant to them? It would be great if those with the ability to create the apps themselves crowd sourced ideas from those who lack those very resources. Instead of solving problems that pertain to an upper class, collecting research or data on problems that pertain to other populations could be a way to try and bridge some of this inequality gap.

  2. Regarding the question raised around increased inequality through civic-hacker innovation, I believe the key to preventing this is to incentivize both problem identification and technical solution towards working on underserved areas. I agree that diversity in early testing is critical to ensuring appropriate representation, but beyond that it is also necessary to guide civic-hacker innovation towards addressing issues in underserved areas that need it the most. While it’s understandable that technical solution providers will likely come from more affluent neighborhoods, I do not believe this has to be a problem. Instead, I see this as an opportunity to connect the supply of these skills with the demand of those neighborhoods with the most complex and severe problems identified. Therefore, New York City’s responsibility should be to properly promote BigApps and incentivize participants according to how teams can best be designed to address the most imperative problems. In this way, underserved areas would be prioritized, the inequality gap would decrease, and BigApps would drive the most social impact.

  3. This is a very interesting topic, for it is rare for a government body to open itself up to this extent. I feel this is fraught with several risks and would rather a government be open to feedback and solutions rather than open up to developers to use technology to build apps and roll it out to the public (Refer:

    Relying on citizen hackers to build apps to solve problems seems like a good idea, but the question about data integrity arises. Even if the data is owned by the government, there is a high chance of misuse by the app developers who could create loopholes in the design infrastructure. if some of these apps can track a persons location, then physical safety is a concern and identifying travel trends could lead to home thefts, and identity theft is possible as well. Can the government afford to take such risks ? Governments have to protect everyone and has to be risk averse. Opening up data is risky. They could rather have a mechanism to open up design thinking, and like you mentioned above ” keep the citizens involved in problem identification and solution design”. However, the process of implementing the solution should be owned by the Government.

  4. This is a great example of the public sector embracing a form of innovation that has the potential to help underserved communities. The private sector is often not incentivized to solve these problems and the public sector often doesn’t have the resources to solve these problems, so it’s refreshing to see a city government recognize the power of crowdsourcing talent. To address the problem that you raise about furthering inequality, the city could take the open innovation one step further and have the public vote on high-potential app ideas. It could also back specific projects that are most consistent with the priorities that the city most wants to promote and signal to the public the types of projects that are especially welcome.

  5. Your piece raised a question for me: how do we ensure that everyone can contribute to open innovation? Given the rise in inequalities – particularly related to education – I’m worried that even open innovation will only attract a certain group of people: those who have the skills to innovate. Unless we can ensure that more people have these skills, including coding, we will not be able to get the range of solutions we are looking for. And in some ways this may increase inequality.

  6. This is a very interesting work. I can see many situations in which this movement does well for society, as you noted above, but I can also see the ways this can have a negative impact. The key reason for this potentially widening the inequality gap would be associated with access to this learning for the underprivileged. I think you hit the nail on the head, that diverse though should be required in the early stages. My next question is how do you increase the access? I’d suggest NYC roll out an initiative in the school system to start teaching and having the younger generation weigh in (acknowledging this would be a slow and age biased solution).

  7. It is so interesting to read that BigApps produced a parking space finder application. As a former New Yorker and frequent visitor of the city, I had no idea such an application existed. Parking can be one of the most frustrating experiences in New York, especially for families visiting the city from places like Queens, the Bronx, or other less economically unequal locations. This is the kind of problem that falls in the middle, since the poorest residents cannot afford a vehicle, and the wealthiest can afford convenient transportation. Of course, New York has an extensive public transportation network, which reduces the need for personally owned vehicles, generally. The larger point is that this program can benefit from wider publicity. By increasing the awareness of the kinds of city problems that can be ameliorated by BigApps, especially in poorer neighborhoods, the city has a tremendous opportunity to inspire students to pursue STEM disciplines.

  8. This is a great post, and a very interesting topic! I completely agree with your recommendation around needing to ensure that the user base from which ideas are sourced is as diverse and representative of the civilian population as possible. I believe that this will help ensure that people of all socio-economic backgrounds are represented equally. Of course, such initiatives tend to attract a self selected sub set of people who are relatively more well off, and so I believe that the onus of ensuring that this effort is inclusive lies in the hands of the government bodies that are leading it. In fact, I believe that this is in their best interest, as often the best ideas and important change can be sourced from the grass roots level and initiatives like BigApps can help spur such movements.

  9. As a ex-New Yorker, I’ve used multiple apps that you mentioned in the article, but never knew the background to them. Thanks for sharing.

    I am going to examine the BigApps platform from a data privacy lens. Consider a simple parking spot find and pay application that many New Yorker’s would be using on a daily basis. What measures are being taken by the NYC Governing body or the BigApps executive team to protect the credit card data of the users? For all you know, this data might be sold off somewhere in the world. This is just one example, but puts forth the data privacy issues that open innovation brings with itself. The organization must take these data privacy issues very seriously (which is often not the case and is neglected most of the time) before taking on a project similar to BigApps which touches a large population.

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