Mingling, singing each others' praises, and delivering rounds of applause at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight will be city officials, leaders of New York City's nonprofit world, and executives of some of the largest technology companies with Manhattan offices. It's all to announce an annual affair: the launch of the city's Big Apps competition, in which the city releases large amounts of data and asks citizens, marketers, hackers, entrepreneurial spirits, to create something useful with it.

The competition, which is in its fifth year, is maturing--and so is its backing. This year Facebook, Microsoft, and eBay are working directly with the city's economic-development arm to fund the competition, Inc. has learned.

It's been four months since the mayoral godfather of Silicon Alley and all its tech-job-boosting heft left office, and the new administration of Bill de Blasio has something to prove. Over the past month, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen has been wooing New York startup founders and the venture capitalists who fund them. Two days of meetings in April for Glen included dozens of CEOs and investors, including Kevin Ryan, a founder behind Gilt Group, MondoDB, and Business Insider, Alan Patricof, founder and managing director of Greycroft Partners, and Serkan Piantino, head engineer at Facebook’s New York office. 

Piantino has been actively working on fostering a closer relationship for Facebook New York with the mayor's office, and his efforts have landed him a spot on the mayor's council on tech and innovation. He says his goals include trying to help the administration understand the tech scene as a whole, and the hiring trends emerging in the industry locally. The upside for Facebook is that it hopes to have a line in to the mayor's office as it opens its massive new office in the Astor Square neighborhood of Manhattan. And officials have been receptive, he says--just as had the Bloomberg administration.

"I wouldn't say it's skipped a beat," he said regarding the leadership transition earlier this year, and its relationship with Silicon Alley. "It's even a lot of the same people in the room."

Some observers expected the new leadership to dramatically change--or even shrink--the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The most significant move, however, was shifting a longtime city employee, Kyle Kimball, to the NYCEDC's head, making him one of the most prominent members of the Bloomberg administration staff held onto by the de Blasio administration.

The data-driven app competition that's being announced this evening is the annual Big Apps competition, spearheaded by the NYCEDC, and managed largely by a firm paid to consult, HR&A Advisors. It's the first year Facebook has been involved in financially sponsoring the contest, and eBay and Microsoft are also sponsoring the competition and working on related events, which are likely to include hackathons, mentoring sessions for entrants, and parties, according to sources within Facebook and the NYCEDC. The companies involved in funding the competition will also be responsible for judging one of four categories, which have been dubbed Live, Work, Learn, and Play. (Last year, eBay held a hackathon for entrants in the city's app contest.)

"We recognize that to the extent that we work with the private sector, we can make the program bigger," said Eric Gertler, the vice president and managing director of the NYCEDC. "And it will also help bring the recognition that we need."

This year, the competition is also slightly different, the NYCEDC is set to announce, in that it will include not just apps, but also interactive projects such as multi-platform games, and possibly even hardware. The city has seen roughly 300 apps created due in the previous four years of the competition.

"We open up the public data sets in ways that will help all new Yorkers from all five boroughs," Gertler says. "We hope to find various solutions to urban challenges that are useful to everyone. And we hope there's an economic benefit, that companies develop out of the competition."


Published on: May 5, 2014