Apps for America Winners Connect Government, Open Source


Sunlight Labs has announced the winners of its Apps For America 2 contest, a competition to create open source applications building on the US government’s new “open data” initiative to “provide easy access and understanding for the public, while also showing how open data can save the government tens of millions of dollars by engaging the development community.” The winners include a data mashup tool, a Web front-end to the Federal Register, and a location-centric search engine sythesizing statistical reports.

As the name indicates, Apps For America 2 centered around improving access to US Government data sources. The contest was a response to the government’s May 2009 launch of, a site that provides machine-readable feeds of goverment collected and created data sets. Sunlight Labs sought to kick-start development of free software as a major player in the open source governance movement by offering a total of $25000 in prizes to winning applications. A panel of judges selected the finalists in August, and public voting chose the winners, which were announced at the Gov2.0 Expo in Washington D.C. on September 8.

About the Winners

First prize was awarded to DataMasher, second to GovPulse, and third to ThisWeKnow. A special visualization prize was awarded to Quakespotter. Honorable mentions were awarded to, Budget, Time Machine, USASpendingWatch, Disasters Map, Bernie The Federal Register Watcher, and Fedtastic. An additional three honorable mentions will be awarded, but Sunlight Labs is announcing them one-by-one on its Web site.

DataMasher, the first-place winner, is a site where users can combine two data sets to create a third. For example, Census population divided by state land area generates a simple population density map. Perhaps more interesting are mashups that combine rarely-associated data, such as SAT score versus per-student public school expenditure, or Federal spending per House Representative. Users create the mashups, which are then saved on the site for all to see, rate, and comment on. Visitors can browse for recently-submitted, highest-rated, and most-talked-about mashups.

Seventy four separate data sets are available, though users can suggest more be added. The data is only provided on a state-by-state basis, which limits the options, but it is still easy to see how the tool makes visualizing connections between data a trivial task. For winning first place, the DataMasher team was awarded US$10,000.

GovPulse took home US$5000 for second place. The site provides access to the Federal Register, the US government’s journal of record, breaking down the thousands of pages of official records by agency, location, date, and subject. Users can search for mention of their hometown or a particular topic of interest, for example, and find all agency rules, proposals, and notices published by the Federal Register, broken down by agency or cabinet department.

In addition, the site makes use of automatically-generated maps, pie charts, sparklines, cloud diagrams, and more, for every topic. The Federal Register is published daily, and covers everything from executive orders to policy statmeents to changes in regulations; GovPulse certainly does not make reading the Federal Regiser easy, but it makes it accessible for reading where it would otherwise be impenetrable.

Receiving US$2500 for third place is ThisWeKnow, a site that collates all available government data for a given geographic location. Users can type in a city or zip code, and instantly pull up demographic, economoic, land and water, crime, and environmental data for the location, expressed in easy-to-understand terms. All of the data is precisely sourced, making it suitable for citation, and the site compare different locations in regard to popular issues.

In terms of user-friendliness, ThisWeKnow makes RDF and JSON formatted feeds of its data available, and has built-in links to share its statistics on the microblogging service Twitter.

About the Runners-Up

Quakespotter received an additional US$2500 prize for best visualization. Unlike the main prizewinners and most of the other runners-up, Quakespotter is not a web application; it is a desktop app that runs on Windows and Mac OS X. Quakespotter is a 3-D visualization of earthquakes around the globe, pinpointing their epicenters and magnitude, plus information feeds about current earthquakes gleaned from Twitter, Google, and the US Geological Survey.

Another natural-disaster information app, Disasters Map, was named among the honorable mentions–each of which won US$500. Disasters Map is a web app that tracks both earthquakes and tropical storms, and pulls in related information from Web news services.

The breakdown of the massive federal budget was the inspiration for several apps. Budget is a comparitively simple application that visualizes the federal budget, broken down by agency and program, and tracks its changes over time. focuses on government contracts, and allows searching by topic and keyword. Users can input multiple items (such as software and aircraft) and see a chart comparing the expenditure on both for the last decade.

USASpendingWatch also tracks government spending contracts, but breaks down the numbers by political party. Sunlight Labs questions some of the methodology behind its comparisons, but applauds the app anyway for its visualization and presentation features.

Time Machine is an animated visualization tool that displays changes in a selected statistic over time. Select unemployment numbers, hit play, and watch the map reflect changes as the years tick by.

Bernie The Federal Register Watcher, like second-place winner GovPulse, is a tool to simply access to the Federal Register. But Bernie (named for Bernard Kennedy, the Register’s original director) is based around news feeds, automatically generating RSS feeds on a by-department, by-agency, and by-content-type (e.g., notices, new rules, or new proposals) basis.

Finally, Fedtastic is a text-oriented browser for all kinds of data feeds. Fedtastic does not sport the fancy graphics and “Web 2.0” color schemes of some of the competition, but it is a clear and concise way to find otherwise hard-to-track down numbers, complete with the original citations.

Apps For More than America

Sunlight Labs and its non-partisan parent organization The Sunlight Foundation are US-centric, but Sunlight Labs went to great lengths to ensure that the software submitted to the Apps for America 2 contest would be useful to interested parties anywhere on the globe. All entries were required to be open source, and the “Why we’re doing it” statement on the contest page stated its purpose as “to demonstrate that when government makes data available, it makes itself more accountable and creates more trust and opportunity in its actions.”

Open government initiatives are active in countries from Scandanavia to Australia and New Zealand, and even though Apps for America 2 only dealt with US data sources, the quality of its entrants and winners no doubt will encourage software developers in other regions to work on ways to bring their own governments’ data to the public in fast and easily-understood formats.