EPA’s Jackson on Building a Successful Apps Challenge

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Unlike most applications contests that offer contestants cash incentives, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Apps for the Environment managed to generate 38 submissions and is currently the sixth most popular challenge on Challenge.gov without any financial rewards for participating.

We asked Malcolm Jackson, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Environmental Information, to share his advice and lessons learned on building a successful government apps challenge.

How did the idea for Apps for the Environment come about?

The idea started with Aneesh Chopra, the Chief Technology Officer of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He challenged EPA to do something similar to what HHS was doing in making their data available to developers. He encouraged EPA to work with other federal agencies to make environmental data available and challenge developers to use data from multiple agencies to create apps.

We launched the challenge on June 9 at the Department of Health and Human Services data forum.

EPA created an Apps Team and divided the challenge into four distinct areas: Vision, Judging, Marketing and Outreach, and Event Planning. The frequent collaboration of the team members and open sharing of information allowed them to identify and overcome obstacles.

We asked developers what they wanted and we gave it to them. For example, we provided easy ways to access our data, including access to Data.gov. We held webinars about our data and provided EPA data experts to contact. And we encouraged the public to tell us some good ideas for apps so developers would know what ideas are in demand. That worked great because we received over 100 ideas for apps.

What type of apps have been submitted?

The apps cover a broad range of environmental topics, including local air quality, mercury in fish, and carbon emissions from your travel. There’s an app that helps you purchase high-efficiency light bulbs and shows you the energy savings and pollution impacts. And a couple of games that are educational and fun.

We look forward to honoring the challenge winners at our Apps for the Environment Forum on November 8 in Arlington, Virginia.

How does an apps contest like Apps for the Environment tie into the broader IT objectives of EPA, or any agency for that matter?

EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. A challenge like this supports the mission by leveraging the private sector to develop applications that address specific areas of concern identified by the user community.

An apps contest encourages developers to transform existing data and make it useful to a broader group of people. It’s a way to get additional value out of data that’s already been collected.

What advice do you have for other agency IT leaders who are thinking about hosting their own apps contest?

An apps challenge is a great way to harness the innovation of experts outside of your organization. But it requires listening to your customers, being willing to change in response to feedback, and building communities.

You have to reach out and ask developers and customers what they need. Then you have to be ready to respond to what they need and provide it.

You also have to invest time and energy to build a community with these parties. It means continuing the dialogue, often using social media or other communications channels.

Lastly, it means that you have to work with your data providers to ensure that they and your internal business partners understand the value of this effort.

Learn more about Apps for the Environment.

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Agencies, Aneesh Chopra, Apps for the Environment, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Government IT News, Malcolm Jackson, open government
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