Sep. 21, 2010 10:00 am

Spark Innovation in Baltimore with an Open-Data App Contest

It's time for Baltimore to follow in the footsteps DC's Apps for Democracy and NYC's BigApps and join the citywide open-data movement by creating a public app development contest.

UPDATE (11/2/2012): The Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, in partnership with, will be sponsoring a civic apps contest with $10,000 in cash prizes up for grabs.  This was announced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at last night’s Tech Night at Lexington Market.

UPDATE (2/12/2011): Shortly after Baltimore City’s announcement of the OpenBaltimore data catalog, we organized our first Civic Hack Day so that developers and consumers could get their hands dirty with what could be done with the city’s data. See some of what was built from the event.

UPDATE (1/26/2011): Baltimore city has just announced OpenBaltimore, an open data catalog of city data sets. As the community begins to interact with this service, I hope this will help create some interest from the city to hold an open data contest.

UPDATE (10/1/2010): Big thanks for all those supporting this initiative! Gus Sentementes who writes for the Baltimore Sun under his column, BaltTech, picked up the story and ran with it. He was able to get in touch with the Mayor’s office who has confirmed that “based on citizen feedback, the city IS indeed working on an open-data portal for city data”! This is great news and I wanted to take the time to thank everyone who showed their support for the cause.

Have an idea for an app for Baltimore? Submit and vote on your favorite ideas!

In 2007, Washington D.C.’s newly appointed CTO Vivek Kundra established the D.C. Data Catalog, giving the public access to more than 300 data sets from D.C.’s municipalities. It was at this time that he got in touch with Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs and together created a prize contest known as Apps for Democracy. The 30-day contest cost the city $50,000 in prizes and returned 47 crowd-sourced iPhone, Facebook, and web applications whose only requirement was that they had to use at least one data set from the city. It would later be said that the apps submitted were estimated to be of a value exceeding $2.6 million. That’s an ROI of 5100%.

Other cities caught wind of this incredible venture and started planning their own versions of the open-data app contest. New York City and its mayor Michael Bloomberg launched NYC BigApps, powered by the Data Mine. It initially cost the city $20,000 and returned 85 apps with an estimated value of return of $4.25 million. Again, an almost incalculable ROI of 21,150%. California has recently launched a similar statewide competition dubbing it as “The Great Data Gold Rush”. One of the most noteworthy outcomes of California’s open-data initiative has been an app that uses San Francisco’s 311 API to create service requests from Twitter via

Public competitions like the ones listed above that leverage technology to benefit humanity are nothing new to us. One of the most famous prizes in modern history was the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize offered in 1919 to the first person that could complete a nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. Eight years later Charles Lindbergh won that prize in his Spirit of St. Louis single-engine aircraft that featured a unique engine design housing innovative technology still used today.

It’s a no-brainer that the return on these competitions is grossly more valuable than the initial investment in prizes. Even the federal government sees the value in such contests and has recently setup a marketplace for these “challenges”. was established in early 2010 as an online challenge platform for Federal agencies to freely create their own public prize competitions at their will.

There’s a lot of benefit for a country, city, or organization to hold a public competition. Aside from the ROI they’ll most surely receive, each of these contest sponsors are benefiting from the following:

  • They can use challenges and prizes to excite the public into creating innovative or cost-effective solutions or improvements to existing ideas, products and processes.
  • They can identify a goal without first choosing the approach or team most likely to succeed.
  • They pay only for performance if a winning solution is submitted while still retaining access to all submissions.
  • Finally, challenges and prizes can tap into innovations from unexpected people and places. There’s a lot of smart people that aren’t working for the city.

In Baltimore, there are some incredible grassroots events and organizations already toying with the notion of civic competition. One such event is Ignite Baltimore that has setup an Ignition Grant with up to $1,500 in prizes for new, innovative projects that help improve the quality of life in Baltimore. I also know that in July 2010 a symposium called Baltimore City Data Day was held to discuss the benefits of a Baltimore with open-data. (Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the event and find it a bit ironic that data and notes from the event aren’t even available online.) I did happen to speak with some of the attendees and got mixed reviews but still think it’s a step in the right direction.

So here’s my request.

I ask my city and I ask Mayor Rawlings-Blake. I ask my city council. Why can’t WE hold an open-data app contest? You’ve got enough on your plate. Let the Country’s most concentrated area of IT professionals help you out a bit. All we ask of you is the following:

  1. Open up the existing data that you’ve been using for years as well as ALL other accessible data.
  2. Create a prize. I’m suggesting $50,000 split into a few category types.
  3. Sit back and let our talented folks give back to the city millions of dollars of valuable applications.

As a web-designer and brand consultant by trade, I’ve already gone ahead and suggested a name for the contest. I’m donating the domain to the effort. I’m hopeful the city will grant this and other similar requests and move forward with an open-data app contest because I believe we as a city are starting to become aware of not just our technological capabilities but also the impact they are having on our global impression.

But the time to act is now. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, the time is now to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Kundra, Mr. Corbett, and Mayor Bloomberg and create this contest for Baltimore. Who knows, one of these apps might just save a life.


Mike Brenner is a cofounder of incubator and education facility Betamore in Federal Hill, Baltimore. He is a web developer and technology community activist. The George Washington University alumnus is on the Baltimore advisory board and partnered on its founding by merging it with the Startup Baltimore blog he founded.

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  • Mheadd

    I’m the developer that built TweetMy311. I’ve also competed in the Apps for Democracy contest in DC and the NYC BigApps competition.

    I’m actually not far from Baltimore (living in Wilmington, DE) and i have family there. I would love to see Baltimore launch a concerted effort to open its data for use by developers and others, and to host an app competition.

    Much can be learned from the app competitions that have already been held, to better focus the intent of the contest and to help ensure the continued viability of the submitted applications.

    I’ll be tweeting and blogging my support for this, and hope others will as well.

    Mark Headd

    • Mike Brenner

      Thanks for the support Mark!

      We’re definitely looking at previous app contests for ideas on how to structure one here in Baltimore. But first, we need to garner the support of the tech community here in Baltimore and the interest and later, approval of the city.

      Any feedback highlights you could publicly run by us? Also, knowing this region and our current infrastructure, any tips?

  • Mark Headd


    I committed some thoughts to a blog post not long ago ( – hopefully this will provide some things for you to consider.

    Also, I know that the City of Baltimore is still looking for a CIO. At least I think they still are…

    It might be somewhat more challenging to get them engaged until that person is in place. This is just a guess, I don’t know anyone in that office personally.

    Getting the Mayor’s office to take notice would probably help move this along. Lots of other mayors jumping in with both feet on this –

  • Ryan

    All sounds great. Totally on-board, but how did those apps generate revenue for the respective city competitions? You mention the returns, but how did that work?

  • suzkirkpatrick

    Do it. Great idea.  We love our NYCBigApps contest every year in NYC. 

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