Innovative Public Engagement Helped Fuel EPA GreenApps Success It’s not every day you get to help an agency solve a unique challenge that reaches fully across the strategic engagement spectrum, and yet the opportunity arose recently to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Apps for the Environment competition.
Six months later Apps for the Environment, EPA’s first mobile app competition, is one of the most popular challenges ever hosted on Challenge.gov if not one of the most effective, despite no cash prize offered as an incentive. The path from A to Z is a testament to EPA’s vision of long term dedication to innovation, as well as the agile approach the team employed to analyze, measure and adjust engagement efforts.
Charting the Course
Apps for the Environment challenged software developers to find new ways to combine and deliver environmental data in new apps. Submissions to the challenge were required to use EPA data and address one of Administrator Lisa Jackson’s Seven Priorities.
And “if you build it they will come” approach wouldn’t be enough to drive participation, as by then more than 120 Federal challenges were announced - many with significant cash prizes. The bar needed to rise higher to gain the attention of participants and compel them to contribute. EPA needed a unique effort that took full advantage of its organizational strengths, mitigated potential obstacles, and above all walked-the-walk through engagement beyond standard broadcast messaging.
Phase One was brought on board with the team early on to help create a Citizen Engagement Plan that offered a menu of innovative strategies and tactics to engage key partners – EPA understood that reaching mere “audiences” was not the goal because long term sustainability requires empowered collaborators and contributors.
The Citizen Engagement Plan introduced tailor-made opportunities that stretched from using social media to code-a-thons, integrating targeted online strategies with complementary in-person action. We wanted to open a genuine dialogue with the community, and through this meaningful relationship empower the community itself to drive the initiative’s momentum.
Rubber Meets the Road
As we know, the game plan often changes the minute it turns from bullet points to action, so our support continued through the implementation phase of the Citizen Engagement Plan. We helped organize EPA’s first code-a-thon with American University and online forums with industry experts.
Also, we supported the redesign of EPA’s own sandboxes including the Apps for the Environment website and the EPA Data and Developer Forum. And the #GreenApps hashtag on Twitter was created, and quickly became the focal point for extensive online dialogue across social media channels.
One of the most critical factors in the success of Apps for the Environment was EPA’s willingness to adapt and try new things. This allowed the team to meaningfully use our daily and weekly measurements to fine tune efforts as they rolled out, select the best tools to carry them out, and reshape them around feedback from community partners. This not only helped calibrate engagement activities, but sent a strong message to participants that collaboration with the Agency is valued and prioritized.
Eventually 38 mobiles apps were submitted to Apps for the Environment, but just as important is that from users to developers and data experts, EPA successfully organized the community it needed– and empowered contributors and partners at each stage in the project life cycle.
Six months ago, as the original Citizen Engagement Plan was taking shape, it was discussed that the most important outcome would be that the community feels comfortable and capable building mobile apps with EPA data even if they don’t host a challenge to incentivize it. With this community now more organized and lessons learned shaping long-term activities, even today environmental apps continue development at green hack-a-thons across the country. Follow the #GreenApps hashtag - you will still see developers enthusiastically contributing new ideas and products.
Now the most interesting phase begins for EPA: Where to next? We look forward to seeing EPA’s vision for Agency-wide innovation unfold and are proud of the opportunity to support its development.