Contest crowdsources tech solutions to America's problems

There are plenty of apps that let you share clothes, hail cabs, and procure food on-demand, but there are few that make your community a better place to live. Two civic-minded online organizations are trying to encourage tech solutions for actual problems with Ideation Nation, a civic hacking competition.

The tech nonprofit Code for America and online engagement platform MindMixer have winnowed more than 350 submissions down to 25 finalists, and you get to pick the winner. Voting closes Friday. The list of finalists includes ideas as varied as a social network for nonprofits, a community app for sharing resources, and a mobile payment solution for traffic cops.

Code for America and MindMixer launched the Ideation Nation project before the Healthcare.gov debacle, but Code for America co-executive director Abhi Nemani said the Obama Administration’s technology troubles prove that the government could use a little outside help.

“It’s funny that the timing [of the contest] worked out this way when we were talking about ways the government can do this better,” Nemani said. “Healthcare.gov—you saw them build it, launch it, and then it broke. We want to show government that this process can be open.”

Tech for democracy

The contest was designed to encourage community-oriented tech solutions that could be scaled upward, and that would change people’s lives for the better.

Omaha-based Derek Homann proposed a Square-for-cops idea that would let officers take on-the-spot payment for minor traffic violations. Homann isn’t a part-time activist—he just wanted to see what feedback he would get on his idea.

“I’m not particularly involved at all,” Homann said. “That’s part of the reason this was a great platform for me, because I didn’t have to attend a particular meeting or go through writing a handwritten letter. I could just spend a couple minutes online and submit an idea. If it was a good idea, it could make the next round. This platform made it a lot easier for me to get my ideas out there.”

New York City's Citibike program is popular, but most U.S. cities don't have bike-sharing.

While Homann works for a large online company, many of the Ideation Nation submissions came from average folks with no prior experience working in tech. Baltimore resident Elizabeth Jones has no tech background, but thought an Airbnb-style app for bike-sharing would work in Baltimore—and potentially other cities. Jones is more active in her community, where she offers feedback on the public transportation system and organizes bike-shares. She submitted two other ideas that also made it to the finals: a bike-pooling app and a network for restaurants or caterers to connect with homeless shelters to donate leftover food.

The winning idea creator gets $5,000 and a free MindMixer site to build out the idea, plus mentorship from Code for America and MindMixer’s government experts and developers—no tech experience required. To check out the finalists and offer feedback, visit Ideation Nation. The winner will be announced next week.

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