Breaking the code 

Transparency. Youth involvement. Happy businesses. Brought to you by the government.

Government isn't generally known for innovative ideas. But Go Code Colorado, an award-winning program run out of the Colorado Secretary of State's Business Intelligence Center, seems like a fresh approach. In just its second year, it's managed to achieve several goals that tend to elude government offices: increasing transparency, bringing in youthful perspectives, and helping businesses grow.

Andrew Cole, program manager for Go Code and himself just 32, says the idea was born in 2012, when then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler began releasing quarterly reports to the business community in hopes that government information would prove useful. The first report showed that new-business registrations were a leading indicator for short-term job growth. The response was swift.

"People wanted more data," Cole says, "and we knew that a lot of things they were asking for, we didn't have access to."

So the Secretary of State's Office created a contest to solve the problem: Go Code, which is funded by $1.5 million from the state and tens of thousands more from sponsors like Google. It was inspired by hackathons, in which tech geeks get together for a few days and create new software, often to solve a specific problem.

"We challenge software developers and entrepreneurs to create apps that help solve business problems using public data," Cole says.

Last year's winner, the app Beagle Score, uses public data to score how appropriate a site would be for a certain business. Heather Alcott, the owner of Denver cake shop Glaze, told participants in a taped presentation about how important, and how difficult, it was to find a good location — there were so many considerations, from price to demographics to tax credits. Though she worked with a commercial real estate broker and tried to do her homework, she says her location on Madison Street proved less than ideal. She soon realized the street got little foot traffic and that construction was beginning next door. An app like Beagle Score would have helped her pick more wisely.

"Wouldn't it be ideal to stand in front of a commercial real estate space and have a Zillow-like application that we all could use to better understand foot-traffic numbers?" she asked the crowd.

Go Code kicks off each fall, when the Secretary of State invites business leaders to discuss problems that an app could solve. The Office then sorts through those ideas and comes up with a set of problems for Go Code. The problems are intentionally broad, because the Office wants to encourage creative thinking.

This year, contest participants are looking at transportation solutions (ways to use technology to clear up traffic jams), business performance (showing business owners how they compare to the competition), higher education partnerships (connecting businesses with talent and intellectual property), and tourism intelligence (showing businesses what tourists want).

The actual challenge begins with an event April 8, and on April 10 through 12 participants gather at locations in Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Durango and Grand Junction to work on the apps.

At the end of the weekend, two teams from each city are chosen as finalists. They're given several weeks to fully develop their apps, and are given help during a mentoring weekend. Finally, on May 21, a panel of judges selects three winners, who are each awarded a one-year, $25,000 contract with the state for the use of their app, which they are expected to maintain.

Last year, teams were given first-, second- and third-place prizes of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000. Cole says that didn't work well, because it costs money to maintain the apps.

Other changes to the program this year include: releasing the problems earlier so teams can do work ahead of time; working with state agencies to make more public information available on the Colorado Information Marketplace to use in the app; and dropping a Boulder location in favor of a Grand Junction location (to make the competition truly statewide).

Current Secretary of State Wayne Williams says he thinks Go Code is working on many levels. The program has encouraged state departments to put huge amounts of public data online, in a usable form. And that should make it easier for reporters and interested citizens to access that information in the future. It's also made government look a little more hip.

For the second year in a row, the Colorado Springs Go Code event will be held at EpiCentral Coworking, on Tejon Street downtown.

Jon Severson, founder of Colorado Springs Young Professionals, says it's a great event that he hopes will get more young people interested in government. Government often leaves them out of decision-making, he says, even though they tend to be the most tech-savvy group.

Consultant Hannah Parsons, the local point person for Go Code, says she hopes Springs city government will start its own event. It would be a great way to welcome young professionals, which the city has long had trouble retaining. There's certainly plenty of local enthusiasm, she says, noting that a Springs team (Local Sage) took third place last year and that city councilors have come by to show their support for the effort.

"I've heard somebody in the startup world say that the startup world runs parallel to government and they don't intersect," she says. "And that doesn't necessarily have to be true."


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