The Seattle Police Department recently held a hackathon.
When the event was initially announced, there was a fair bit of skepticism in the civic technology community with more than a few people stating that the event would likely not be a productive one, for either the Seattle Police or those that chose to attend. I was one of those skeptics – I thought the event was too narrowly focused and that the problem that attendees would be working to help resolve wouldn’t appeal to a broad enough audience for it to work as the organizers probably hoped.
As it turns out, something rather unexpected happened at the event. Here is what one attendee – who reported this on a mailing list I am on – described happening at the event.
“It was definitely not a hackathon, but more like an IRL improv RFI. A number of presentations were given by companies, private citizens, and students to show off video processing algorithms and audio transcription services. Each presentation was followed by candid questions from people from the police department, city attorney’s office, and public servants from jurisdictions throughout the region.”
When I read this, it reminded me of another event that was billed as a hackathon but which was actually a hack to the traditional RFI process – the Reinvent NYC.gov event that was held in New York City prior to the overhaul of the city’s central web portal.
The goal of the event was to develop prototypes and mockups of a revamped NYC.gov using input and ideas from the technology community. The ideas and insights surfaced at the event were eventually incorporated into the RFP the city issued to overhaul NYC.gov. I’ve always thought this was a brilliant way to approach a big, complex and costly government RFP – start with a process that looks much like a hackathon where new approaches and designs are tested and demoed by building actual prototypes.
Given how much cutting and pasting actually goes into government technology RFPs, I think it would be refreshing to see this kind of approach used more often. It’s frighteningly common for technology RFPs to be issued by governments where those crafting the RFP have very little idea of the technology options available to solve the problem at hand or enough first hand knowledge to competently evaluate responses.
Maybe another option that the government and civic technology communities should be looking at for improving the public procurement process is what happened in NYC and Seattle.
Maybe we need to be thinking more about ways to turn RFIs into hackathons.