Army Launches “Apps for the Army” Development Challenge (Todd Fine)

On March 3 at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, Chief Information Officer of the Army, announced the launching of Apps for the Army, a broad web and mobile application challenge (explicitly not “contest”) for active duty Army, National Guard members, and civilians working for the Army.

This follows other popular development challenges: the D.C. government’s Apps for Democracy project and Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America contest. These exercises have established that even moderate financial rewards will encourage both professional and casual developers to experiment creatively and share their code. The total prize money is $30,000 and will be split between entries in categories under the labels of Data-Driven; Warfighting; Mission-Specific; Local-Aware Mobile; Training & Education; Morale, Welfare, and Education; and Personnel & Career Management. One hundred teams and individuals can enter the challenge, and the competition will run until May 15.

The motivation began from an awareness of the power of the maker/hacker mentality; in fact, Lt. Gen. Sorenson began by stating strongly that the project attempts to change “how the Army functions.” Sorenson cited the example of two overseas deployed soldiers who had pressed for access to a Linux server to write web applications to share and collaborate on mission data. Unfortunately, however, due to a variety of barriers, it took six months for them to gain access to a server. Yet, once access was granted (near the end of their tour of duty), the soldiers were able to get an app online in two weeks, and before long the platform was expanded to serve around 14 or 15 different applications.

The Army has discovered that a young generation of “digital native” soldiers, as Sorenson put it, often have some software development experience, and that new tools, inexpensive open source software in particular, are enabling even “non-professional” programmers to write useful applications, often in rapid time. Hence, the Defense Information Systems Agency has adapted the military’s cloud computing environment, the Rapid Access Computing Environment (RACE), to serve the challenge as a development platform and as a demonstration environment. Of particular interest, Linux server environments and development toolkits for Android, IPhone, and Blackberry will be provided.

The source code for the applications will be hosted at forge.mil, the military’s code repository. Lt. Gen. Sorenson stated the Army is interested in exploring how they can collaborate with open source communities and local technology organizations in this and future endeavors. Also, DARPA has expressed interest in the Army’s project, according to Lt. Gen. Sorenson, and in general collaboration with hackerspaces.

HacDC, a D.C. technology collaborative, would welcome all Army soldiers and personnel in the National Capital Region to stop by to talk about mobile application and web development. The challenge explicitly encourages the creative use of new languages and mobile environments that many HacDC members have significant experience with.

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