Planning an Apps Challenge

May 8, 2013

Apps challenges are a great way to spur innovation and help your agency meet its mission. But before you jump in, learn about how apps challenges work, to ensure yours is successful.

Design Concept or Functioning App?

What kind of product do you want from your apps challenge?

  • A working app; or
  • A concept for an app

To widen the pool of entries and participants, don’t put limits on submissions. You may get some great ideas that go in directions you’d never even considered.

You can ask developers to design for a specific platform, such as:

  • Smartphone
  • Website (desktop)
  • Website (mobile)
  • SMS (short message service)

You can also leave it open and allow developers to build for their preferred platform, which will likely generate more entries. Apps for the Army required their apps be built for smartphones.

What’s the Scope?

Tie your challenge to particular datasets, to provide some scope for the project. Otherwise you may receive a bunch of apps that already exist around a given topic, or submissions that totally the miss the mark.

  • If you limit submissions to a single dataset, you’re more likely to get an app that meets a specific need
  • If you don’t limit the datasets, it allows developers to be more creative, but they might not come up with an app that really fits what you’re looking for

An example of a great match between dataset and challenge is the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative to end childhood obesity, which fit perfectly with the USDA’s nutrition dataset. They designed the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge around it. To see more examples of how others did it, search for “apps” or “app” on

  • If you are interested in new apps only, state that in your rules. Otherwise, contestants may submit apps that are already out there, making the challenge less innovative.

Allow Enough Time

Plan for your challenge to take around five months, from start to finish. It can take more than two months for developers to build the app, and a week or more for you to review all of the entries. You’ll also need quite a bit of time to market the challenge, and time for public voting if you have a “People’s Choice” award (where the winner is chosen by public online voting).

  • Announce the competition on the day you open submissions, so you can promote the challenge during the submission period

What Happens to the Code?

Do you want developers to share the code they wrote for the challenge, or offer the apps for free? Sharing the code will encourage people from the open-source community to participate, and collaborate to improve the apps. However, some developers would rather develop something that they can later enhance and sell. To maximize participation, consider requiring that apps created as part of the challenge are offered for free, but allow developers to build a premium or paid version of the app, separate from the competition.

Choose Prizes

People are motivated by factors other than just money. A social reward (meeting an influential person) can have a greater perceived value than a small monetary prize.

Consider including a “People’s Choice” award, where the winner is chosen by public voting. Participants will try to gather the most votes from family, friends, and colleagues, increasing the number of visitors (and possible future entrants) to your challenge.

Promote Your Challenge

Promotion will likely be the most time-consuming aspect of your challenge. To help budget your time, consider this example: The World Bank’s Apps for Development Challenge team spent 70% of their time marketing the contest; 20% researching the problem they wanted to solve through the contest; and 10% of their time on judging.

Online Promotions

  • Use your existing press contacts and partners to reach out to the tech press, including tech bloggers such as Mashable, TechCrunch, Wired, and Boing Boing. They can help to get information about your challenge in front of the developer community.
  • Leverage your social media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote the challenge.

Offline Promotions

  • Research and attend tech events geared toward developers, share marketing materials, and ask to promote your challenge at the event.
  • Organize a Meetup group or host an event to build interest in your challenge.
  • Reach out to groups you may not normally work with. For example, teachers, schools, and universities might be able to incorporate your challenge into their class schedules and assignments. The team behind the World Bank’s Apps for Development Challenge reached out to think tanks, universities, and others to promote the challenge to their communities.
  • Follow-up with participants. The team behind the HHS myHealthyPeopleChallenge drafted boilerplate emails to send out when the submissions didn’t meet the criteria of the contest, so participants could have time to resubmit.

Now that you’ve planned out your apps challenge, you need to implement it.

Review all the apps challenge steps at a glance on the How to Run an Apps Challenge page.