Cities Take Lead On App Development

Editor’s note: Brooks Rainwater is the director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. David Maloney is the Manager of Strategic Partnerships at the National League of Cities. 

What kinds of apps do cities need? This is a key question that cities have been asking and answering in a range of ways in recent years. Before we even can truly answer that question, though, it’s key to understand the important role of cities in everyday life.

We wake up in our home in a city, walk in a city, bike in a city, commute to work or school in a city, frequent local businesses for lunch in a city, and go out in the evenings in a city. All along the way local governments have a key role to play in how people experience cities.

Public-sector leaders, much like their private-sector counterparts, want to develop the best user experience. City leaders nationwide want to create great places in which residents can live, work and play – technology can elevate and expand these cities, with apps being a premier vehicle in which to do this.

Technology is rapidly changing the city experience, disrupting, augmenting, and generally improving everyday life. Aside from the obvious consumer-facing applications (Foursquare, Yelp, Uber, etc.) municipalities are increasingly seeking to reach residents “where they are” technologically.

Want to pay for parking? Your city probably has an app for that. Want to pay your taxes, or sign up your kid for summer camp? More and more often your city may have an app that will save you a trip to City Hall. These rather simple technological advances in municipal service provision have fundamentally altered the urban user experience nationwide and globally.

These tools certainly add simplicity to the more mundane tasks, but what about something more ambitious? Can we tackle public health issues or reform how citizens interact with public safety?

This is the question at the fore for a large group of cities that have banded together to seek an answer. The Multi-City Innovation Campaign is a program that helps spur quality innovation in cities across the country. It serves as a platform for cities and regions to work with the developers, creative, and entrepreneurial leaders currently operating at the intersection of innovation and cities.

The goal of this year’s challenge is related to public health, community, health services, and healthcare technology. We need innovators to focus in on these issues and some challenges that people could address include: the creation of bike-safe communities, cost of care transparency, urban pollution monitoring, and more.

Growing in a year from 4 to 23 cities, this group led by CIOs is at the vanguard of municipal technology solutions. The National League of Cities will collaborate on this expansion in partnership with these CIOs from across the country and Jumpstart Foundry.

This campaign will address targeted areas of need for cities. The 2015 program will focus the creative genius of companies and entrepreneurs on grappling with public health challenges at the intersection of technology and government service provision.

And to top it off there is money on the table to get this going. Over $200,000 of funding is available to fund an idea that works for cities. This leading group of cities is taking an active role, rather than waiting for a company to create something that may work for them, and cities want to help fund and design these programs.

The founding cities of Palo Alto, Boston, Nashville and Raleigh created the MCIC largely to combat what they perceived as the “Monday morning” problem. Or, what do you do once the hackathon in your community ends? While hackathons are often the primary civic engagement vehicle for tech-savvy millennials, the solutions are often unfocused or unsustainable in the long term.

This is where the Multi-City Innovation Campaign is unique. By focusing specifically on a pressing local issue, cities are becoming actively engaged in the development of tools and tech solutions that could potentially impact their communities.

A key component of this is the open data movement afoot in American cities. Open data serves as the backbone of the government technology industry. It not only enhances transparency and openness, but provides engagement opportunities between government, citizens and stakeholders.

Beyond its functional use for an increasingly app-dependent society, data collection and analysis is powering and redefining how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others in almost every part of life.

A whole new world is being created through access to useful, usable information, and cities are at the vanguard of this shifting environment. Open data is fundamental to the central role that cities are playing as innovative leaders in the 21st century.

This year’s Multi-City Innovation Campaign will tap into this data, focusing on the broader issue of public and community health. To assist with the open data piece, the campaign is also partnering with Esri and Socrata in order to provide critical data sets to the development community.