Can Apps Create Jobs and Optimize Civic Building?

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—In the growing field of civic apps, events like Saturday's NYC BigApps conference at New York Law School provide support and a spotlight for developers. As a deadline to submit a functioning app approached, graduate business student Yscaira Jimenez decided to apply some advice she had received from one of the experts on hand at the event.

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"Everything that doesn't work needs to go!" Jimenez told her teammates, who were working on an app to help people without college degrees find good entry-level jobs.

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The designers on Jimenez's three-person team managed to disable an errant profile tab and fix a geolocation feature in time. Their app, Plexx, won third place at a preliminary round of the NYC BigApps competition, which the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) co-sponsored.

"Not everyone in a low-income community has a computer at home or tablet," said NYCEDC's executive vice president Benjamin Branham. "But more and more people have smartphones. So if you can take some of the information that has traditionally been online–applying for a job, connecting to a career center, figuring out housing programs–and make those more smartphone app-friendly, you're suddenly reaching a demographic that might need them and utilize them in a much more robust way."

All the participants in Saturday's event (which organizers described as an "unconference," in the spirit of the National Day of Civic Hacking held the same weekend) will face off again in the final round of NYC BigApps. Winners of that round will be announced at the end of the month.

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As of last Saturday, the competition had drawn 81 entries in four categories: jobs and economic mobility, energy and the environment, lifelong learning and healthy living.

The apps ran the gamut, from HealthyOut, which searches for healthy meals in the user's neighborhood and won first place Saturday, to Zoner, which "calculates the maximum size building allowed on any property in New York" and draws on municipal data, private data and sets created by products like Foursquare and Yelp.

Veronica Ludwig of CollabFinder, which organized NYC BigApps, sees the opening of government data in particular as the reason for a boom in civic apps.

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"The more data that's open, the more we have the ability to build these apps," she said. "It's just going to get bigger and better."

Along with free technical advice from app experts, the roughly 100 participants at Saturday's event heard from NGO workers who have dealt with issues the participants are taking on. Employees of the Blue Ridge Foundation New York and the Robin Hood Foundation, which fight poverty, consulted the Plexx team. Suraj Karnati, whose team worked on an app to rate and find child care options, received similar advice.

"We have been getting feedback that's been really helpful," he said. "The problem is way too big. It's a very delicate matter. Every parent is worried about this."

NYCEDC's Branham cited the MyCityWay travel app as a past success story to come from NYC BigApps, which started four years ago. NYC BigApps has initiated a founders' network to support winning apps once the competition is over.

This year's final winners will receive a considerable boost: a total of $150,000 spread across the four categories, plus one "wildcard" winner. For her part, Jimenez has started to think of ways to grow her user base and monetize Plexx.

"To get third place is really encouraging for us," she said. "It helps us focus on the important features.

--By Shant Shahrigian for MainStreet

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