Following in the footsteps of other city government efforts, a New York City challenge is the first in the nation to crowdsource education apps at the district level.
The Gap App Challenge asks software developers to tackle problems in middle school math. Like other large urban districts, nearly half of New York City's middle school students are behind grade level in the subject.
While students in this diverse student body have shown significant improvement over the last decade, they still have room to grow, said Steven Hodas, executive director of Innovate NYC Schools at the New York City Department of Education. Students need targeted help, whether they're below, at or above grade level.
That's why 250 schools volunteered to personalize learning for each student through the department's iZone initiative. They've tried different learning techniques and school redesigns, but they can't solve the problem alone. In the future, the Education Department plans to offer a number of challenges that tackle different education issues.
"One of the things we're trying to do with Innovate is to build this sort of powerful, flexible engine for identifying problems and aiming solutions at them in effective ways," Hodas said.
By issuing the Gap App Challenge, which runs through April 10 with winners of $104,000 in prizes being announced in May, iZone leaders hope to bring more people together who can approach the problem from different perspectives. They especially want to hear from younger, smaller companies who may attack the problem differently than large established companies.
Aside from the development part of the challenge, organizers plan to host pilots and evening sessions that connect people who see problems in education with people who have solutions.
"The idea is really to make us better customers and help make potential vendors better vendors, to make smart demand and smart supply," Hodas said.
In this case, judges are looking for apps that focus on middle school math content and teaching and learning support in this subject. For example, an app could help students easily pull the math out of a word problem. Students struggle with word problems in math either because they're not strong readers or because they have a hard time translating words into an equation, Hodas said.
On the support side, an app could show data patterns or monitor trends for teachers. Or an app for parents could outline what homework their child needs to complete every day.
While hackathons and app challenges have become pervasive in other sectors, they haven't hit education on the district level. But New York City is trying to change that.
"I think you'll be seeing a bunch of this in school districts during the year," Hodas said. "And I think a couple of years from now, we'll be surprised that we weren't always doing this."
But this isn't just an isolated effort in the city. New York City departments including Information Technology & Telecommunications and the Economic Development Corporation are planning their fourth NYC BigApps challenge. These challenges give entrepreneurs and investors access to city data from different agencies so they could build useful services for citizens.
Different city departments are crowdsourcing answers to problems for two reasons: Others know the answers, and smaller companies have innovative ideas that the government doesn't generally see.
"We don't have the solution to everything," said Ann Li, managing director of the Center for Economic Transformation inside the city's Economic Development Corporation. "We don't know what the best and right answer is to every question, so that's why I think we're going external in seeking solutions."
App challenges and hackathons fit in with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's digital roadmap for the city, which lays out a holistic plan for how the city can make government more efficient and accessible to citizens through technology. And now they're bringing different ideas to both education and other government departments.
"We're glad to see this kind of entrepreneurship spirit spreading across different agencies across the city," Li said, "and I think that's something that's very encouraging."