EPA apps lesson: Offer money or plan to work harder

If you’re not offering money prizes in an application development challenge, you may have to work harder to engage volunteers and make it a “win-win” for all involved, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA  released its “Lessons Learned” report on March 9 on its Apps for the Environment challenge last year, which yielded 38 new applications created by volunteer developers for free.

Winning apps included software to identify the most energy-efficient type of light bulb for any lamp, and software to measure the carbon footprint of different modes of transportation from Point A to Point B on a map.

While the EPA offered no prize money, the agency was able to motivate volunteer developers as well as users and data providers by appropriately structuring the challenge, the EPA said in the report.

“A project like this will only work if all key stakeholders get something out of it,” the EPA report said. “Developers need recognition, data, and expertise. Users need to know that people want to hear their ideas. Data providers need to see that their data can be leveraged to yield more value. It will take a lot effort to effectively connect users and developers.”

The EPA teams leading the challenge spent a lot of time understanding what the developers want. They met with them in person, interviewed them on the phone and at various events.

During the competition, the EPA also created a simple Developer Resource Page that served as a storefront for available EPA data, data services, ideas and existing applications. The agency also held a weekly webinar to provide access to data and program experts.

Another key group kept in the loop were the potential users of the data, the EPA report said. The agency created a Data and Developer Forum website as a place to post ideas, get feedback on developments in progress and encourage people to submit ideas for applications.

The EPA teams hosting the contest also reached out to EPA program offices to understand their needs and what kind of applications they might want. The program officers also were invited to speak at events so they could get feedback from the EPA team and from the volunteer developers.

“This kind of interaction helped connect the people who have the needs with the people who have the data,” the EPA said.

Other lessons learned described by the EPA included:

  • Coordinate internally: It was helpful for the EPA to set up four teams to coordinate the contest with defined roles and responsibilities—marketing, judging, recognition and future planning. Team check-ins were held three times per week. The teams met in a larger group once per week and briefed senior management once per month.
  • Manage cultural change: The challenge required a culture change for data providers in order to view themselves as facilitators of access, the EPA said. Many data providers consider themselves data managers, and work group discussion may be needed to help them take on the role of data access providers.
  • Get help from partners:  EPA contest teams got advice from the Health and Human Services Department, EPA program offices, and EPA external affairs for video, Web and listserv.
  • Sustain the connections: Discussions are ongoing on how to maintain the developer community and possibly provide payment for creation of future applications.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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