06/27/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Apps For Detroit Challenges Participants To Address City Problems With Technology

If you've ever thought of a way technology could improve Detroit, now's the time to turn your idea into something concrete.

Apps For Detroit, a competition for groups to design apps (whether for the web, phones or tablets) that address city challenges, kicks off with an informal information session at Signal-Return in Eastern Market this Thursday.

"One of the outcomes we hope to achieve with this event is … to corral disparate groups in a space and find developers who care about civic issues," said Alicia Rouault, one of the three Detroit fellows for Code For America, a nonprofit that launches initiatives to improve city government functionality with technology. With partners Matt Hampel and Prashant Singh, she is working on two projects for the city. One program will track bus locations in real time, another will give community groups tools to collect and analyze their own data.

When the three fellows finish their project, they hope to leave the city not just with a couple apps, but also usable data and a stronger network of people working on civic projects.

Karla Henderson, group executive of planning and facilities for the City of Detroit, as well as a judge for the challenge, hopes Apps for Detroit will become an annual contest.

"We're very excited to be moving technology forward in the city," she said. "It's something we've lagged on so it's great to have volunteers and people interested in improving Detroit."

While some in Detroit are already using technology to make the city and its infrastructure work better for residents, like Loveland Technologies' apps and database of properties for sale in the Wayne County tax auction, Rouault hopes their events will stimulate more collaboration and action.

On Thursday, they're expecting to bring together a mix of developers, designers, individuals in the non-profit sector and others to get more information about the two week competition and look for teammates to work on challenges, which will range from using national databases of health facility to provide information for citizens to visually show stories of social good in the city.

"This is as much about connecting developers to people who understand issues in Detroit from a really informed perspective," Rouault said. "An engineer building something in isolation won't ultimately be as impactful or informed as if they were collaborating with someone who knows really knows the issues in Detroit."

The city will release data about parks, recreation center, bus routes and bus stops that hasn't been made readily available before, something Rouault called a "huge win." After Thursday, the information will be online for developers to access and build on.

But teams or individuals don't have to use the new data in the competition, which purposely has few constraints. Essentially all that's required is a great idea and a working prototype.

"The best apps are generally built on top of good data," Rouault said. "But who knows? One request was to make it easier for citizens to document potholes on the street, and that doesn't need to be built on data that exists."

Code for America will be putting information about the challenges on the Apps For Detroit website, which also has a page for individuals to share ideas and create teams. A panel with representatives from business, government and media in Detroit, will judge the submissions, due July 15, and announce winners at the beginning of August.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated submissions for the Apps for Detroit competition would be due June 15. The story has been changed to reflect the correct date of July 15.