Army apps contest may pave the way for streamlined acquisition process

By Steven Overly
Monday, August 9, 2010

The U.S. Army may soon issue a call of duty for Web and mobile application developers.

As winners of the "Apps for the Army" competition were named last week, key military officials said the five-month contest demonstrated a faster, more nimble acquisition process that will alter the way future business is conducted.

That means civilian developers could soon find more opportunities to create and profit from apps that they build specifically for the military without having to trudge through the typical acquisition process.

"Having spent a number of years in the acquisition community, we have a very laborious process," said Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army's chief information officer. "The whole point of doing this contest was to see if we could somehow acquire capability without having to go through that type of process."

Details on the extent to which Apps for the Army will inform and reform the existing process will be outlined in the next several weeks.

Sorenson said changes will likely be similar to those made for the contest, which allowed developers to identify a technological need and design an app to fulfill it as they saw fit. The Army did not issue a set of requirements or request for proposals, as it usually does.

He added that the initiative would eventually be extended to the commercial sector, though the first contest, which began March 1, was open only to Army employees and soldiers.

Over the course of 75 days, the 140 participants crafted 53 applications. Twenty-five met the Army's certification standards and 15 were chosen as first-, second- or third-place winners. The prizes totaled $30,000.

The idea was born from Apps for Democracy, a similar contest that started in Washington two years ago in which developers were urged to create apps that use government data to improve life in the city.

The District's chief technology officer at the time, Vivek Kundra, tapped iStrategyLabs founder Peter Corbett to shepherd the project, and Corbett was contracted by the military earlier this year to guide Apps for the Army.

He said the contest's design was encumbered by security restrictions.

"To put this in perspective, once we had the go-ahead from Vivek Kundra to launch Apps for Democracy, it took us six days to build and launch the program," Corbett wrote in an e-mail. "With the Army, it took us about three months to dot all of our i's and cross all of our t's from a legal and technical perspective."

Sorenson said soldiers can download the apps onto personal phones, but added that the military has already begun to work with major defense contractors to explore the use of commercial devices in a military context.

A smartphone loaded with applications for physical training, disaster response, mood monitoring and other uses could soon be among the equipment issued to soldiers, he said.

"For the tech community, I'd say they should pay attention to what's going on in government," Corbett wrote. "As the government 2.0 movement spreads throughout the system, more and more opportunity for doing things smarter, better, faster and cheaper will pop up."

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