Do Hackathons and Civic Hacking Matter?

There are lots of smart people asking tough questions about civic hacking and hackathons as the new year begins – a new year that promises to see lots of action on the civic hacking front.

I think this is a good thing. The more we examine how civic hackathons work and the more we evaluate what they produce, the better we’ll get at running them and the more we’ll all get out of them.

A lot happened in the world of civic hacking, open data and hackathons in 2011. But does all of this activity matter? Are the events and activities we are seeing in the civic hacking space making a lasting difference? Is the civic hackathon a construct that we will see used in the long run to promote new ideas and lasting civic change?

In a word, yes. Let me explain.

Confessions of a Civic Hacker

First, a bit of a disclaimer.

I’m not objective on the subject of 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.

Apps for SEPTA

Apps for SEPTA in Philadelphia

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

In March, I’ll be speaking at SXSW Interactive on the subject of civic hackathons, describing lessons learned at hackathons in 2011 and highlighting strategies for holding successful events in 2012 and beyond.

I’ve written before about the value of hackathons, and tried to dispel what I consider to be misconceptions about them, or highlight what I believe is unreasonable in terms of expectations for their success.

Having said all of that, I think I’m also a realist about what it takes to deliver real civic change. I’ve worked in government before and I understand the challenges and priorities of those in the public sector. I think a critical evaluation of civic hacking is healthy, and this is a very good time to do it.

If we’re going to examine the value of civic hacking in general and hackathons in particular, I think looking back on what happened in 2011 is critical. A lot of very important things in the world of civic hacking took place last year.

What I saw in 2011

One of the most important trends I saw last year was the growth in independently organized civic hacking events. These events were not organized by the local government that was the “subject” of the hackathon, and they lacked the large cash prizes of the more traditional municipal hacking event.

These events are different than NYC Big Apps or Apps for Metro Chicago (although those events are pretty cool too).

I wrote about events in Philadelphia and Baltimore that I helped organize in earlier posts. Other locally-organized events took place in Reno, NV and in San Francisco.

These events are important because they are driven by civic activists and hackers that want to make their own cities work better and smarter. This wasn’t hackathons foisted onto the local technology community by some well meaning but ill informed elected official or government employee.

This was local hacker communities deciding that they wanted to work on issues that affect their neighborhoods and their cities, and choosing the hackathon as the vehicle to most effectively do it. That’s a big deal in my mind.

These events were highly focused on specific problems. An event in Philadelphia was focused on transit issues; an event in Baltimore focused on education; the series of “Summer of Smart” events in San Francisco each focused on a single issue like food and nutrition to health to sustainable energy usage.

Some of these events had unique follow through as well – circling back to government officials with the outcome of the civic hacking events, highlighting innovative solutions to the people that hold elected or appointed office.

in Philadelphia, an entire day was spent showcasing the solutions built by outside developers to the management of the regional transit authority. In San Francisco, the solutions developed during the Summer of Smart hackathons were presented to the entire slate of candidates running for mayor.

Not only were hackathons independently organized in 2011, in some cases so were the open data repositories for cities.

In Philadelphia, the open data site was built and is managed by a private firm – Azavea – and the city’s open data efforts operate under the stewardship of a group comprised of representatives from the public, private, non-profit and education sectors.

In Chattanooga, TN a similar approach is developing – built using the same software platform that was open sourced by the OpenAccessPhilly group in Philadelphia.

All of these events, to one degree or another, helped to galvanize the local technology community in these cities and demonstrate that building software-based solutions with open government data (or helping to liberate such data from outdated government websites) is a highly valuable form of civic engagement.

This is helping to develop and fortify the civic hacking culture in these cities. Consider the example of Reed Lauber of Philadelphia, developer of NextSEPTA (a mobile web app for transit riders):

“Like so many urban developers, I just want to provide resources that make my fellow citizens’ lives a little easier,” he said. “Really, I made it for myself and hope that someone else out there will also find it useful.”

Or consider the example of Mike Subelsky in Baltimore, the driving force behind an intricate project to combine and refine data on property ownership in Baltimore:

I’m looking for awesome ideas for my next startup. I’m hoping that by solving your problem I’ll learn enough about your industry/your life that I’ll stumble onto something that a lot of other people also need, something I could build a business around. You can only get good ideas by working on real problems.

With all of that being said, we are still learning how to run civic hackathons successfully. We will continue to need good ideas and experimentation to help ensure sustainability of the developed projects, and to close the feedback loop with public officials and other stakeholders.

We still have work to do.

Toward More Sustainable Civic Hacking

As big a success as 2011 was for civic hacking, 2012 needs to be even bigger.

Will it be the year that civic hackathons move, once and for all, away from large one time cash prizes and towards rewarding winners with the chance to “live the dream” and make their weekend project into a viable business?

Will it be the year that more governments step up for real and actively market and promote civic apps built with their open data and APIs?

Will it be the year where we see widespread adoption of common standards across governments that will make it easier and more efficient to build solutions that can be used by multiple governments?

I hope so…

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