OpenAustin.org: a Customer Development Project in the Works?

Scott Francis
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Recently Austinites (or, some Austinites) expressed frustration (outrage?) that a contract to build a new City website was being filled by a company in California.  Given how many folks there are in Austin who know web design and implementation, and given how many of those might be looking for work at the moment, it just didn’t seem to make sense to send a $750,000 contract to another state for fulfillment. And so William Hurley started an effort he’s calling OpenAustin.org, where he is promoting a different approach, one he calls “crowdsourcing“.    The idea is to crowdsource the prioritization of requirements, and then the building of the site itself.  Hurley claims that this specific project could be built for 10% of the estimate currently on the table (and, there has been some debate whether the $750k is for building the site, or just formulating the PLAN to build the site). Several posts have cropped up about this development- on Austin’s Startup Blog, on GigaOm (thanks to Stacey Higginbotham), and again on GeekAustin, and it has a fair amount of buzz in the Austin community. What I think is interesting about Mr. Hurley’s approach is that he’s essentially saying that a Customer Development process where you quickly iterate on learning what the customer (citizens of Austin, members of the city government) really want, and then prioritize based on their input.  By doing this, they can save a lot of what could otherwise be wasted development effort on features that no one really wants to pay for.  In a sense it is a continuing battle for transparency in the local government that Austin has been waging back and forth for decades.  In this case, we have people advocating for transparency of the development of an important City resource. We’ve previously commented on Customer Development, which is particularly well-suited to situations where you don’t know with certainty the problem nor the solution.  In the case of the website, it looks like a fair number of people are feeling like the RFP and the Contracting process were done in a too-insular fashion, at a result of increased costs and less alignment with the public.  It will be interesting to see how it shakes out, but I sure like the idea of prioritizing city web dollars using public voices, and local city staffing.