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INCA 09 – Innovative and Creative Applications

Belgium is the latest country to announce an Open Innovation competition. The initiative was launched in March, and was inspired by other similar competitions including:

  • Showusabetterway – This was an initiative from the UK Power of Information Taskforce to solicit ideas on how to “represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful”. The competition was a great success, and generated dozens of suggestions for various applications and services to improve civic life and government/citizen interaction. The Taskforce cited the competition as an example of how government can “Stay at the leading edge of customer driven service improvement.”
  • Appsfordemocracy – Was a competition to create new services based on mashups of public data from the District of Columbia’s Data Catalog. This resource provides a wealth of data relating to the operations of the District, including crime incidents, purchase orders and building permits. The competition resulted in 47 Applications being built in 30 days, and an estimated 4,000% return on investment.
  • Apps for America – a competition organised by the Sunlight Foundation (a non-profit dedicated to using the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency). The aim was for developers to create mashups based on public data made available through their APIs and datasets. Dozens of applications were submitted, providing interesting mashups of government related data. These ranged from transparency related applications e.g. discovering connections between people and organisations; to sites promoting accountability e.g. crowdsourcing the analysis of political soundbytes.
  • Rewiredstate – while not a competition, this “National Hack The Government Day” operated with a similar mission to the initiatives described above i.e. to reuse and mashup public sector information for the public good. 80 developers convened at the Guardian offices in London to created working projects based public sector data. Over 30 hacks were created, displaying an astonishing breath of creativity and innovation.

INCA (INnovative & Creative Applications) Competition

The Belgian competition is being organised by the IBBT (Interdisciplinary Institute for Broadband Technology) – a research institute founded by the Flemish government to stimulate ICT innovation. Permissible entries include websites and mashups that:

contribute to solve collective and social problems…for example facilitate transport, promote health, protect the environment, ensure government accountability.

All entries have to be available and usable by Flemish citizens, but can be created and developed by anyone. There is a total prize of €20,000 available which will be divided between an over-all winner and 9 runner-ups.

Current competition submissions include:

  • Eidcontact – a effective way to use your Belgian identity card
  • Wantz – an easy way to create an online wish list
  • Frietfindr – is a way to find chip shops in your neighbourhood

The competition blog emphasises the kind of submissions it would like to see e.g. services such as publicmarkup.org. It also raises an interesting question though as to why the crowdsourced examples of public services 2.0, and transparency initiatives, are mainly from the US and UK. Indeed, the examples given as inspiration for the competition are all US and UK based. This is not to say there are not a variety of other international government 2.0 initiatives, but the use of competitions to stimulate open innovation appears to be limited to these countries.

Open Innovation in Europe

While the INCA competition seeks to encourage Flemish developers to do suff that matters, it also wants to promote and potentially stimulate the development of organisations such as the UK’s mySociety in continental Europe. The use of the Internet to create applications and services to improve civic life – whether through the promotion of a more participatory democracy, or simply improving how citizens access public information – should not be left to the sole responsibility of government institutions. Rather, government should engage citizens, and other interested parties, to facilitate and collaborate on open innovation projects that benefit the public good.

The subject of open innovation in public services was discussed at a recent workshop facilitated by the European Commission (EC). The focus of the workshop was to bring together open government enthusiasts from all over Europe, to share experiences, and raise awareness of the potential for web 2.0 tools to improve public services. There were presentations on various initiatives from patientopinion.org to farmsubsidy.org, but all focused on themes of open government and public services 2.0. Those at the workshop reported how interested and enthused EC officials were with the event, and how it succeeded in raising awareness of what can, and what has already been done, in this area throughout Europe.

The next step is to capatalise on this enthusiasm and develop concrete initiatives. For example, it would be interesting to see the EC sponsor a pan-European competition to foster and promote innovative mashups based on government data. It could be run in the same vein as Apps for America i.e. use existing APIs or datasets available from EU institutions to develop innovative solutions to benefit civic life.

EU institutions contain vast amounts of information through different portals and databases, however, it is often not easily accessible or searchable. The first European Open Data summit will take place next month, and will seek to assess ways in which this information can be made more transparent and accessible. Using competitions as a means of stimulating and encouraging transparency in this area has proved successful in other countries, and should be investigated. Heres looking forward to Apps for Europe sometime soon.

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