Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
App Contest Produces Few Hits, But Lots of Buzz
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 12:00 AM
Tuesday evening, at a ceremony attended by the stars New York's technology and venture capital scenes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will congratulate the winners of a city-sponsored software competition, which includes $50,000 in prizes.
The BigApps contest challenges developers to create mobile or desktop applications based on data collected by the city, such as restaurant grades or the alternate side of the street parking schedule.
Now in its third year, BigApps' strengths and weaknesses are coming into focus.
While the contest makes huge amounts of government data available, unleashing developers' creativity, BigApps has spawned few commercial successes.
One Hit, Two Works In Progress and Some Misses
Of the six top finishers from BigApps and BigApps 2.0, there was only one hit: BestParking (2010’s 3rd-place winner), which has had over 300,000 downloads (iPhone and Android combined). While BestParking started in New York, it has rapidly expanded to cities from Albany to West Palm Beach.
Two winning apps might be considered works-in-progress: Roadify (2010's first place winner), which uses transit information to make getting around the city easier, and Sportaneous (2010's second-place winner), which helps users discover sports activities near them.
Two apps quickly fizzled, Taxihack and Big Apple Ed (2009's second and third place finishers, respectively); and the makers of another app, Wayfinder NYC (2009's winner), did not respond to repeated requests for information.
Creating a killer app isn't really the contest's aim. The goal is to make public data more accessible, and to give a boost to the city's burgeoning tech sector.
Still, for those contestants who bet their future on an app, success is hardly assured.
Win It, Then Work At It
Now two and a half years old, Roadify is still funded by angel investors, and is courting venture capitalists. The program has expanded to serve transit riders in San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, but the information it provides in New York could still improve, according to Chief Operating Officer Scott Kolber.
The idea of the program is to crowd-source transit information, so that M104 bus riders on Manhattan's West Side, for example, can learn about a delay from upstream riders on the same line. At the moment, Roadify relies largely on trawling the twittersphere for updates.
"Our own user base is also using the application to provide comments, but not as robustly as people who are out there tweeting," Kolber said. In other words, while more than 30,000 people take information from Roadify, relatively few of them return the favor with the gift of more, high-quality information.
"Outside of BigApps in the real world, 95 percent of startups don't succeed," said Omar Haroun, founder of Sportaneous, which won second place last year, promising to connect users to pick-up basketball games and other opportunities for physical activities. Sportaneous has about 8,000 users and is currently unavailable for download while Haroun overhauls the software.
"The five percent that do [succeed] often have to change, have to tweak it," Haroun said, adding that the name BigApps has opened investors' doors to him.
A Missed Opportunity
While most winners say competing – and winning recognition and cash – was a fulfilling experience, at least one was disappointed in the months after.
"We have an incredibly accurate off-street parking database, and we thought we could benefit New York's own data mine by collaborating with the city, but we really found it difficult to interact with them," said Benjamin Sann, founder of Bestparking, a program that enables motorists to find parking spaces and compare prices.
Sann said he found it hard to reach the right people at city agencies, and ultimately gave up on the idea.
"In fairness to the city of New York, we learned that government websites can't link to private websites," Sann said.
Still, he thinks the city is missing an opportunity by effectively ending its relationship with app developers after Mayor Bloomberg shakes their hands on the night of the awards ceremony.
"It was fantastic in terms of the cash award winnings, we're certainly very appreciative for that financial support,” Sann said. “I would encourage the city to make available the contact information of certain key people within the government to the winners, and allow the winners really to reach out an engage the city in new ideas."