Got Government Data? There's an App for That

Apr 30, 2012

You might have heard about the Drake Relays this weekend. Turns out there was another kind of relay going on - a race to make phone and computer applications - using government data.

The event was called the Open Iowa Code-a-thon. It involved around 50 people, 52 sets of data, and approximately 54 hours to get it done. Government agencies made information available, so coders could capture open-source data to turn into useful applications.

Organizer Tej Dhawan says the concept is for people with ideas for using government data to get up and pitch an idea to the group. If their pitch is a hit, they'll produce an app — before the weekend is over. And this isn’t about making money; it's about making apps that make government data meaningful to the average person.

"It’s not necessarily government data, it’s citizen data," Dhawan says. And he says it’s important that people have better access to it.

On the sweaty fifth floor of a downtown Des Moines building—coders, government employees, and just plain old self-proclaimed nerds have come to engage in competition.

It’s serious business. Business conducted while eating pizza and drinking beers, and everyone is having fun, including Dhawan’s partner, Christian Renaud.

"Welcome to open Iowa, this is our first time so were gonna screw it up, were gonna make a lot mistakes," Renaud tells the group.   "And it will be a great learning experience for all involved."
Then come the pitches, from an app that tracks the safety and usability of parks, to one that seeks to provide homeless veterans with better options. After about an hour, everybody gets to vote for their top three.  

Lori Tritch is the Iowa’s Department of Administrative Services Chief Operating Officer for Information Technology.

"Innovation is one of the key agenda items for our administration," Tritch says, "and to be able to find creative efficient ways to share government data, and to be able to come to an event like this and actually see and hear creative ways of how to use that data."

In the end the crowd wants a few of the ideas floated, including the good parks app, and the app to help homeless veterans. And they all go to work.  

Two long days of work later, it's time for the judging. The track and trail app has expanded, and people can rate the park, like on the website yelp. They also can check to see if anyone on a sex offender registry might be a park visitor.

One of the creators of the app is Drew Maifeld.
"I teach yoga at the park, and I have a daughter that I bring there," he explains.
That park safety app ends up winning, but the app to help homeless vets comes in second. They each get a bite of the $750 prize. And both teams say they are going to keep working to take their apps to the next level.