Hacking the City

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at the Big Apps 2011 challenge

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at the Big Apps 2011 challenge

Michael Bloomberg gets hacking. In a 1995 profile of Bloomberg, the company, Fast Company wrote:

His theory is simple: shove lots of well-paid young upstarts (2,200 employees, average age 31) together in a small space for long hours, give them the best equipment possible, and you'll get magic.

It's fitting, then, that in his role as Mayor of New York he pushed early to engage developers to address the city's, its citizens' and its visitors' needs. Under his leadership, over the last two years New York has opened up its databases and run two contests--Big Apps--challenging developers to use the data to create apps--desktop or mobile--to make the city more usable, livable, lively.

Grounded in a spirit of playfulness, the Big Apps contests have created real value for New York. Last year's winner, MyCityWay, went on to raise $5 million in venture funding. This year, partly as a result of involvement in the program, contest sponsor BMW-i announced the creation of a $100 million venture fund and incubator to be based in the city, focused on investing in mobility-based technologies.

Last week, in advance of the third iteration of the contest which will take place in early 2012, Bloomberg and his digital team--including Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne--put out a call for ideas for apps, allowing non-tech types to have a say in the products created during the next go-round--a smart way to identify real needs. After being vetted by the public, the top 25 ideas will be judged by well-known leaders from New York's technology, new media and investor community. The top 10 will be awarded $250.00 each. Ideas are meant to be short and sweet, just 140 characters. Really, you're in it for the fun. Ideas are due by July 28th.

While hacking the city can be fun, it can also be serious business. Across the United States a number of organizations are leveraging technology, developers' creativity and desire to do good to open up city-level government and address the pressing issues facing cities as a result of budget constraints. If you're interested, three to explore are:

  • Code for America, loosely based on the Teach for America model of engagement, substituting cities for schools and coders for teachers, currently partnering on projects with Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle. Finalist cities for the 2012 program are here.
  • Open Plans, focusing largely on solving information and software needs in the area of urban transport
  • Civic Commons, founded by Code for America and Open Plans, led by Andrew McLaughlin, President Obama's former Deputy Chief Technology Officer, focusing on helping cities to build and share operating technologies

Code for America is currently accepting applications for its 2012 fellowship. They are due July 31st. Civic Commons is building a database of open civic technology policies, software, programs and organizations. It's here. And New York's Roadmap for the Digital City is here, and its public datamine is here.


(July 14, 2011) The City of New York has announced its first hackathon. The City is seeking designers, engineers, copywriters, photographers and product managers to spend the weekend of July 30-31 at General Assembly, designing, developing and launching a re-imagined NYC.gov. Register to partner or to participate here.