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Keeping PDX a hot spot for app development

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Thursday, July 01, 2010



The City of Portland is using an innovative approach to improve city life. After opening up data sets to outside developers in September the city went one step further in stimulating Portland’s ambitious software developers and dreamers – it created the first annual open source design contest, CivicApps, for applications or “apps” using PDX data sets to address civic issues.


The city hopes the app craze will go beyond just this competition. The website used for the competition is meant to start and facilitate ongoing conversations regarding data and applications even after the prize money is handed out.


“Our longer term objective for the website it to become a town hall of sorts for citizens and governments to interact and create solutions to the most pressing problems,” said Rick Nixon, the city staffer who organized the contest.


The competition is starting to turn heads around North America. Government officials from Edmonton and San Francisco are interested, and a group of citizens in Buffalo, New York have inquired about the competition. Areas of interest range from the outcome of the contest to the source code for the website and how it’s constructed. Nixon hopes other municipalities will construct similar efforts and tailor the code to their own civic needs.


The competition was split up into three phases. The first phase was for gathering ideas from everyone including non-techy types and it ended on June 11. Sarah Sharp and Robb Shecter each scored $500 in prize money for their winning app ideas. selected from 70. The submissions used data about public transportation, park and building permits, among other things.


Shecter, who heard mumblings about the competition through local blogs, was surprised when he found an e-mail from the city announcing him a winner.  His idea, illustrated to the left, was to expand the scope of the CivicApps website to include data sets not just from local governments, but also from local community groups and non-profits who have data sets that could be used for future apps.  He used his organization, OregonLaws.org as an example.


"I’ve grabbed legal definitions off various Oregon sites and created one big Oregon glossary for Oregonians, so I've basically created a new data set of my own, from official government agencies that wrote the definitions," said Shecter.  "So if I can contribute my dataset back to the city then other people can take it and use it to create a new app I haven't even thought of yet."


Shecter said this kind of competition is something he would expect from the kind of creative culture Portland and Oregon generates: "It's just awesome and one more thing to add to the positive reinforcing cycle of ideas and innovation [in PDX]."


Portland's been on the map as a hub for app development since the beginning in part because of success stories like that of Raven Zachary, who quit his day job and founded Small Society, a firm that's created apps for the '08 Obama campaign and bigwig companies like Whole Foods, CLIF BAR and Starbucks.  Since then Small Society has collaborated with another Portland app firm Urban Airship to launch the new Democratic Party app for iPad and iPhones.


“There are a core set of citizens in Portland who are highly charged and are very interested in the continued release of more and more data and they want to build apps around some of the local Portland culture,” said Nixon.


Schecter's idea and 10 others selected as runners up are included in the second phase of the competition, which challenges developers to take those ideas and turn them into actual applications that can be used on smart phones, iPads and the like. Developers can select from the ideas already created or submit their own apps for the first round of the app creation phase ending on July 5th or the second round ending on August 17th.


Winning apps can snag one of 12 $1,000 prizes for most original, most appealing and so on, or one of two $3,000  best in show grand prizes.


One of the apps in development is a food cart finder that would allow users, via iPhone, to capture food cart locations, menus and special deals.


All of the applications created through CivicApps will be licensed under open source for anyone to download and change for their own purposes.











Read more about Portland's app scene in the Oregon Business August 2009 feature: Kickin' Apps.


Jessica Hoch is an online reporter for Oregon Business.



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