Civic Innovation Challenge expected to be a catalyst for Buffalo entrepreneurship

Six weeks since the launch of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s Civic Innovation Challenge, participation numbers and social media buzz have city officials feeling encouraged by the enthusiasm being generated for the competition.

The Civic Innovation Challenge, which runs through April 22, seeks the creation of an app, algorithm, or tech-based solution that addresses a need in Buffalo, based on data available through the new Open Data Buffalo portal, which went live Feb. 22. Teams will have the chance to win prizes totaling $8,000.

With about 70 entrants currently registered for the competition and an expansion of the data sets available in the city’s open source portal, Brown said he is optimistic about the ways in which the information will be used. The data, which ranges from police crime reports and locations to recycling rates broken down by neighborhood, can be viewed at

The competition is also part of Brown’s larger vision for Buffalo, he said, one where innovation and job growth benefits neighborhoods and families across the city. With recent investments in job training programs and business pitch competitions through grants, state, and local funds, the Civic Innovation Challenge is just another example of prioritizing entrepreneurship and innovation as the catalyst for the city’s latest growth.

“We want people to feel like they are very much a part of what’s going on in the City of Buffalo,” Brown told Upstart NY in early April, about three weeks before the Civic Innovation Challenge’s deadline. “They can help drive change for themselves and their neighbors.”

Brown has been clear about where his administration’s priorities lie when it comes to leading Buffalo at a time when the city, thanks to state and private investment, has made huge leaps but still has a long distance to go.

The Northland Redevelopment Project, for example, which partners the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., Empire State Development, New York Power Authority, and the City of Buffalo with funding from the Buffalo Billion Initiative to redevelop an East Side corridor, includes a major investment in a job-training center for high-growth manufacturing and energy sector positions.

From job training for Buffalo’s underemployed to investment in incubator space for high-growth tech entrepreneurs, Brown says for Buffalo’s growth to be sustainable, it needs to benefit everyone.

“Something I’ve focused on during my tenure is to create more training opportunities and create more employment opportunities. This open data portal presents the opportunity to spur economic development, spur entrepreneurship opportunities … we want entrepreneurs to have access to this data so that they can use that information to build their businesses,” Brown said.

Less than two months into the launch of the Open Data Buffalo portal, officials say it’s too early to tell how effective the available dashboard of applications will be to luring new startups to actually use them. Kirk McLean, special assistant to the deputy mayor and Open Data Buffalo program manager, says page views and word of mouth show it’s generating excitement. Consultants from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative and Johns Hopkins have helped structure the program effectively, and the program has been in the process of development since 2013, initiated when Buffalo was involved in the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge.

“We have heard from the civic tech community, city free data is everything they’ve always wanted. It’s a really great start. We’re really hoping to build on that,” McLean said.

Open data and government transparency can invite criticism, of course, but Brown said that after 13 years as Buffalo city mayor, he’s not afraid of what might be hidden in the available information.

“I think it’s important to be transparent, to be able to hear from residents, and we always are interested in receiving constructive criticism,” Brown said. “As a public figure, feedback is important to me.”

Read more about the Civic Innovation Challenge here.

The Innovation Challenge, Brown said, is intended to be a springboard to greater applications of the available data. It’s just the tip, hopefully, of a recently formed iceberg.

“We want to really be very aggressive with this and we want to be very creative with it. We want to be sure it is used to the maximum benefit for residents of the community. We want to solve issues that people are having with the delivery of city services and to make it easier for residents to participate in civic life of the community,” Brown said. “With this challenge, they can participate in that process and help to drive change in ways we as city employees would not contemplate.”

Visit for more information about the Civic Innovation Challenge.

Read more articles by Joel Lehman.

After spending 15 years in northern Vermont where he worked as managing editor for a daily publication, Western New York native Joel Lehman returned to Buffalo this summer to be part of the city’s renaissance. He lives with his girlfriend and his goldendoodle, Wilson, and he enjoys running, skiing and cooking for his family.
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