Heard on the Hill

App Challenge Brings Congress, Young Coders Closer

162 members now sponsor district winners in annual competition

Melissa Medina, left, and Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman listen to a student demo her winning app in the 2016 Congressional App Challenge. (Courtesy Melissa Medina)

The third annual Congressional App Challenge, in which members feature their young constituents’ entrepreneurial work in the technology field, launches Wednesday.

Student coders have until Nov. 1 to submit entries to their participating members of Congress. 

Former House staffer Melissa Medina is the director of congressional affairs for the competition and has increased the number of lawmakers participating each year.

“After working in government for about four years, I think I found a lot of inefficiencies,” she said. “For me, I saw that there was an opportunity in technology to really help shed light on how government works.”

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When it comes to tech careers, Medina finds fault there, too, in that the United States isn’t producing enough workers to fill jobs.

“The fact that we are not able to fill that pipeline because students are not learning about it at a young age was a big issue for me,” she said.

The app challenge is focused on young people wanting to code and create.

Teams of up to four people, in high school or younger, submit apps to their members of Congress, who each then select a winning team for the district.

This year, 162 members are sponsoring participants, up from 116 two years ago. Methods used by lawmakers to choose their winners range from judging panels, hack-athons, and “demo days” — like a science fair for apps.

Medina, in white skirt, with the 2017 App Challenge female winners. (Courtesy Melissa Medina)
Medina, in white skirt, with the 2017 App Challenge female winners. (Courtesy Melissa Medina)

District winners submit three-minute videos explaining what their apps do, which are shown as a revolving PowerPoint presentation on a screen in the Cannon tunnel, next to the Congressional Art Competition entries.

“It’s been naturally bipartisan,” Medina said of the App Challenge. “What’s beautiful about it is it shows that tech is a nonpartisan issue, and that both sides can come together, which to be is a good indication of the strength of this initiative.”

Each spring, the annual House of Code event invites all winners to Capitol Hill to demo their work. Representatives from big tech companies speak to the students about their futures in the field. Last year’s tech participants included Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify.

Medina previously worked for California Republican Rep. Ed Royce, starting as an intern in 2011. When she left in 2015, she was working in both his personal office and on the House Foreign Relations Committee.

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In 2014, the first year of the App Challenge, the competition was run by the House Administration Committee after the chamber passed a resolution that allowed for it to be created.

The following year, the panel designated the Internet Education Foundation as the official sponsor and main nonprofit, thus making the App Challenge a project of the foundation. About a week later, the team, which by now included Medina, started recruiting members.

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Last year’s winner from Illinois Rep. Bill Foster’s 11th District was featured on the TV show “Shark Tank,” and her app received $100,000 in funding from celebrity investors Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner.

“The one thing that we want to be sure within the App Challenge is to show tech is not just in Silicon Valley or New York or Austin … tech is happening all across the country,” she said.

The competition aims to inspire young people from various backgrounds to get interested in coding, especially female and minority students. 

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The App Challenge also aspires to encourage members of Congress to up their app game. 

“Policy is very important but if they don’t understand the fundamentals of what is an app, how are they going to grasp 5G or net neutrality?” Medina said.

The co-chairs of the competition are Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan

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