crowd: how do I crowdsource an app, please?
July 10, 2012 7:42 PM   Subscribe

I want my organization to develop an app for a specific purpose. The catch: it has to be dirt cheap. Enter: Crowdsourcing?

I work for a large, very highly visible non-profit with great brand recognition and a _lot_ of data.

The data pertains to general citizen quality of life. People in general like this organization, its non-political, and its 'feel good message' would probably be of interest to a for-profit partner (we don't approach for-profits, but they occasionally approach us), our brand recognition is vast enough to make an impact on any young upstart's resume. The data message is strong on social good, and might resonate with developers who want to 'make a difference' somehow.

For the most part, while I can imagine this datas' tremendous potential, the data format remains stuck in the old millennium. Leadership, too. I can convince both to make small steps in the right direction, but I'm looking for quick, cheap wins because budget is scarce and I'm not winning any battles via old funding routes.

I had vast, outrageous success, partnering with two crowdsourcing companies to develop data visualizations (which were a big hit on social media), and a short video. Both of these organizations took us in under their 'non-profit'/pro-bono policy, which cut our cost in at least half.

I expect that the same could be done for apps development- where for a certain prize 'cache', a young or portfolio building apps developer would be willing to play around with our idea and help actualize on it.

However, this task is more complicated than the visualizing one, because there will probably be some back and forth between the developers and the data source folks. In contrast, with the data visualization, we just posted our 'selection factors', the data, and away we went....

Can any of you with apps development experience ring in here on the iterative process, whether crowdsourcing organizations exist, and any sites, forums or resources that I can monitor over time to get an idea of what is currently popular/making an impact? I know apple offers stats on best-sellers, but I really don't care to know about the sale stats of the latest bikini-babe or beer drinking apps.... I want to see cool, data-rich examples of apps that people enjoy because they help them think differently and enjoy the wonder around them.

I'm also open to an iterative process with apps development firms, but I don't want to lead that firm on as I seriously doubt management will go for the pitch. Requests for fixed, small (10-20k) investments are my best chance for approval, and aren't accompanied by very high expectations, whereas I am certain one of these apps will be highly impactful, if done right.

Crowdsourcing also has appeal for me because I can get out of my organization's corporate culture, and I've learned so much from our prior experiments. Its the 'don't know exactly what you're looking for, until you find it' approach. Yes I'm wandering...but no, I'm not lost.

Any and all suggestions welcome, thanks!
posted by iiniisfree to Technology (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The more core question is that this is being done on a super-tight budget not because your organization actually has a tight budget, but because they don't value what you're trying to do, right? So, doing an app at the extreme low-end with no real back-and-forth with the developers won't really help to change that situation, and might even aggravate it.
posted by tmcw at 8:04 PM on July 10, 2012

Your best bet is to make the data open and available to anyone who wants to use it, and allow people to develop applications on their own-- this is what many public transit agencies do: they create a public "feed" of data available to developers, and developers use that data to make and sell their own transit apps.

The "cheap win" is to put the data in a format that app developers can use. That's on you, though you could consult with app developers and ask them, "if you had access to this data, what format would you want it in?"
posted by deanc at 8:09 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Good software developers don't work for free. We have $100k+/year positions open for this kind of work, and can't find enough qualified people to fill them.

Sure, you might find some student or something who thinks your problem is interesting and will work on it for free, but they'll drop it on the ground as soon as they have a final exam to study for. Also, not very many students are actually very good software developers -- they don't have the experience. The ones that are good have experience, because they've got lots of their own projects that they work on in their spare time. If you want to get one of these people, you'll have to find them (spend a lot of time around university computer science departments?) and then convince them that your idea is cooler than their own idea that they're already working on.

Also, programming internships are paid. All the good students are at their summer jobs making $25/hr or whatever right now and getting real-world job experience and making connections with possible future employers (for those $100k+/year jobs I mentioned before).
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:18 PM on July 10, 2012

our brand recognition is vast enough to make an impact on any young upstart's resume.
No, it isn't. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest pay their fresh-out-of-school interns, and those names look better on a resume than any non-tech company (or nonprofit).
However, this task is more complicated than the visualizing one, because there will probably be some back and forth between the developers and the data source folks. In contrast, with the data visualization, we just posted our 'selection factors', the data, and away we went....
You definitely don't want some inexperienced kid doing this. As tylerkaraszewski suggests, you need at least one full time experienced professional working on this, one who has deep experience with data modeling and working with the politics angle of legacy systems. It isn't fun work, and it doesn't really impress anyone. That's why this sort of gig tends to pay rather well.

I'm concerned about deanc's suggestion, because it doesn't sound like your data is even ready for public access yet. Getting it ready is a serious project.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:45 PM on July 10, 2012

Most good developers have heard the "work for us for less than you're worth; it'll look great in your resume!" thing before. As you're discovering here, they tend to get kind of grumpy about it. Design firms do some "pro bono" work because it's advertising for the firm, and because it's a low risk way for them to trial out their junior staff on "real" jobs. That's just not how software development works.

"Crowd-sourced" software is usually called "open source." I agree with everyone else here: you probably shouldn't be thinking in terms of getting your own app built; your organization doesn't have any expertise in that. If your data is as valuable as you say, you'll get a lot more mileage out of making it available and usable -- think in terms of providing an API, not an application.

But if your data format is "stuck in the old millennium", well, that'd be the first thing you'd have to solve in any case. Such work is difficult, distinctly unglamorous and not to be entrusted to "young upstarts" -- this isn't anything at all like putting together an infographic or a video; there are lots of not-immediately-obvious ways to screw up data conversions or API design or the like; mistakes that an amateur wouldn't even realize they've made, which your organization would be stuck with until the next time they're ready to tackle a data format conversion (i.e. a long time.)
posted by ook at 9:31 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with many of the comments above, but still think you could make this work. Having $10K or $20K is a lot different from having a budget of zero.

The Department of Energy recently ran an Apps for Energy challenge. This offered $100K in prizes for the development of Apps that would access smart meter energy usage data and present it to consumers in a way that would inspire them to change their behavior. The contests are over and the web page shows the winners. This could give you a ball park of the quality of results you might be able to achieve.

As ook said, one of the biggest issues is the data. Do you think you could get $5K to clean up the data and another $10K or $20K to give away in prizes? The first step would be getting the data cleaned up before you even announce the contest.
posted by alms at 6:54 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, please check your memail.
posted by alms at 6:57 AM on July 11, 2012

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