Open government hackathons matter

Open government hackathons matter

The civic hackathon – a gathering (either virtual or physical) of technologists for a few days or weeks to build civic-themed software – remains one of the more durable manifestations of the open government movement.

Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new event or contest – sometimes more than one. As I’ll explain more fully in a moment, this is a good thing.

The civic hackathon is also, increasingly, one of more analyzed facets of the open government movement.

There are more and more smart, engaged people talking about ways to make civic hackathons better – to help ensure that the software these events produce is of higher quality and has a longer lasting effect. This is also a good thing.

Some of the more enlightened analyses on methods/strategies for improving civic hackathons that have crossed my radar of late (by no means a complete list) are the following:

Also worth a read is a recent post on TechPresident by Nick Judd (always a thoughtful contributor on this topic).

In reading much of what is written on the subject of civic hackathons lately, it’s easy to take away a feeling of concern – even skepticism – about their real value.

The constant lament I hear is that civic hackathons don’t work (or don’t work well enough) because many of the apps that are developed as part of these events are not sustained long-term. Some don’t survive the weekend.

I have for some time tried to dispel the notion that this is the only measure (or even one of the most important) of a civic hackathon’s success. And in this post, I will try again.

I <3 Hackathons

I’ve got a thing for civic hackathons.

I was a competitor in the very first Apps for Democracy that took place under Vivek Kundra in Washington, DC, and I was also a competitor in the first Apps for America contest put on by the Sunlight Foundation.

Since then, I’ve been a participant in lots of other civic hackathons and coding events as either a participant, organizer and sponsor (sometimes as more than one).

I’m currently organizing a Philadelphia civic hackathon and helping to organize another in Baltimore. I am a part of not one, but two entries in the FCC’s Apps for Communities competition.

Yeah, I like hackathons.

This doesn’t always make me the most objective person in discussions about whether civic hackathons “work,” but I believe my multifaceted experience with these events has given me insight into other factors that can be used to evaluate their success.

I think civic hackathons can be bigger than the apps the generate. With some forethought and planning, these events can generate benefits that resonate well beyond the end of the award ceremony.

I think it’s a mistake to judge the success of a hackathon solely on how long the apps it produces “live” afterwards.

It’s also a mistake to try and improve hackathons by focusing exclusively on strategies for sustaining apps in the long term. This misses some of the most important benefits that can be generated by these events.

Whether we’re judging past success of civic hackathons or trying to improve future performance, it’s time to get beyond the apps.

You Get What You Plan For

I’m by no means suggesting that striving for long-term adoption of apps generated at civic hackathons is a trivial or unimportant thing. Far from it.

I’m currently working with a group in Philadelphia that developed an app as part of a recent Random Hacks of Kindness event, to identify funding and supporters to help support operation of the app long-term.

My contention here is that this is but one of the benefits to come from this civic hacking event generally, and from this software application specifically.

Not only did the efforts of my team result in an app – they resulted in a previously unavailable data set being published for others to use.  The app my team worked on helps people in Philadelphia locate farmer’s markets and food retailers that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reimbursement through text messaging. The data behind this app is now available for anyone that wants it, either through an API that supports geo-spatial queries or as a downloadable file in a commonly used format.

The data our app needed to operate was “liberated” in the process of building the app. It is now available for anyone else to use, tweak, modify or expand.

That was our plan, and whether we are able to secure longer-term support for our app, and receive assistance in promoting it, this liberated data will live on.

I’m not the only person that has made this argument. Clay Johnson – formerly of Sunlight Labs – has emphasized repeatedly the need to build a community around app contests. This is another positive outcome that can have long term benefits that is not directly related to how many apps are actively being used six months after a civic hacking event.

I noted with some excitement the number of elected officials and political candidates that attended the recent Summer of Smart hackathons in San Francisco. This is a great way to expose public sector employees and officials to the power of civic hacking.

It’s an approach I am using in the upcoming Apps for SEPTA coding event I’m helping organize in Philadelphia, where officials from the Mayor’s office (who’ve never been to a hackathon before) will be in attendance.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the key benefits of civic hackathons is that they stretch traditional notions of public service delivery and show governments what is possible to do with their data. I can’t think of a more effective way to do this than through a civic hacking event.

There is also the very real potential for these events to generate reusable components – open source software that can be used by other developers or governments to build civic applications down the road.

Nick Judd of TechPresident said this much more eloquently than I:

“With each hackathon, some of the detritus — bits of code, training videos, documentation, the right people trading email addresses — becomes scaffolding for the attendees of later ones.”

The benefits that are achievable through civic hackathons go far beyond just the collection of apps that get developed in the course of a weekend.

But the impetus is on organizers and supporters of such events to plan for these benefits, and to nurture them after the event is concluded. You get what you plan for, and if event organizers don’t plan past the end of the weekend then the potential for a missed opportunity is real.

Civic hackathons are bigger than the apps they generate – they always have been.

Many, though, are now just realizing how far the benefits of these weekends of caffeine-fueled hacking extend.

Mark J. Headd is an experienced voice, mobile and web application developer who has been certified as a VoiceXML Application Developer by the VoiceXML Forum. He currently works as a Developer Evangelist for Voxeo Labs, where he helps developers build open government and civic applications using the Tropo and Phono platforms. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is a former adjunct instructor at the University of Delaware teaching a course in electronic government. He served for three years as the chief policy and budget advisor for the State of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information. He has also served as Director of the Delaware Government Information Center and as Technology Adviser to former Delaware Governor Thomas Carper. Mark has built open source solutions using open government data and APIs for the District of Columbia, the Sunlight Foundation, the New York State Senate, and the cities of New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

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