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[BackChannel] Three Incredible Things About Civic Hackathons

BY Jake Levitas | Tuesday, June 19 2012

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Jake Levitas is research director at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, where he manages GAFFTA's leading research program dedicated to creative applications of technology for social good. This program centers on exploring cutting-edge applications of digital art and media, as well as uses of technology to address key urban issues such as sustainability, transportation, art, public health, and community engagement with a wide array of partners and stakeholders.


Last week, I was excited to be in New York City for the Personal Democracy Forum, the nation's leading gathering for discussion on technology, politics, and advocacy. As part of the conference, we at GAFFTA were happy to partner with PDF and others to produce PDF Applied, the first hackathon associated with the conference, centered around how technology can facilitate better forms of advocacy, activism, and engagement. On the eve of the event (and others happening this weekend) there has been a great discussion in the community about the utility and outcomes of civic hackathons past, present, and future.

A thoughtful post from Mike Mathieu, one of the judges at PDF Applied, outlined his thoughts on Three Problems With Civic Hackathons. He wrote that civic hackathons may produce products which have trouble being adopted, are difficult to scale, and lack context. These are three legitimate critiques that, as Mike notes, people in the Gov 2.0 community are working to overcome.

This weekend's event was the eighth hackathon around civic, social, and artistic issues I've produced in the past year. I feel that I've seen and learned a lot from these events, and wanted to share a few thoughts from my experience.

As a digital culture organization, our work at GAFFTA centers around creative applications of technology and their impact on society. We embrace the hackathon format for a number of reasons, three of which I've outlined below. Though hackathons certainly aren't perfect, I thought I would offer these positive things - incredible things - that I've seen emerge from this rapidly-developing community in the last year.

Prototypes

Hackathons are incredibly effective at producing exciting prototypes - citizen-led experiments which demonstrate the potential for digital tools to change our lives using creative new models and datasets.

Real change takes time and effort. We should neither expect nor plan for scalable, cohesive, relevant, unique, impactful projects to come out of a single hackathon weekend alone, with no built-in context or follow-up. I would propose that there are eight steps toward building a successful project (in rough chronological order):

1) Understanding the community and potential user base.
2) Researching existing open-source projects and open data sets which can be built upon.
3) Building a prototype with a project team and doing initial testing.
4) Creating materials which tell the product's story.
5) Developing the scaling model and/or business model.
6) Recruiting users and gathering additional feedback.
7) Refining the product and design.
8) Raising funding to take the project to a pilot scale and beyond.

All of these steps are necessary for a successful project, yet attempting to do them all in a single weekend is neither feasible nor desirable. But with the right mix of people, the right framing, and the right organizing, a hackathon can be the ideal place take care of Step 3 — building a prototype and creating a spark — in just one or two days.

In truth, the work done at a hackathon is perhaps 2% of the work needed to create a high-impact project — but it's a crucial 2%, because the prototype is what demonstrates what is possible, gives diverse teams something to unite around, and begins to build a story.

Hackathons are the most powerful means we have constructed for creating prototypes out of thin air. Stepping back, it is truly incredible that groups of people, who in many cases have never met each other before, can produce something of demonstrable value in 48 hours - and that they're motivated to do so time and again, sacrificing weekends and free time to build something they're passionate about.

It’s vital to ensure participants’ time is put toward a productive end, rather than a futile or feel-good experiment that is destined to be lost and forgotten after the weekend. As an organizer, this means being informed about precedent projects, doing community research and forming valuable partnerships in advance, connecting people to other local, national, and international resources, providing coffee and healthy food (no pizza!), being an accessible (but not overbearing) facilitator, and embedding a support system into the program model to take projects forward after the weekend. We encourage our attendees to be in the mindset of a two-year timeline rather than a two-day timeline, acknowledging the effort required to make an impact from the very beginning.

Community

Secondly, hackathons are incredibly effective at building community.

The connections forged by creating together are fundamentally stronger than almost any other means of interaction one could imagine, and the power of multiplying these connections across hundreds of individuals is priceless. Our initiatives at GAFFTA in the past year have engaged more than 1,000 individuals in over 20,000 hours of creative and civic engagement, and a growing list of similar events around the country add to these numbers. I have been told by many people that the events have changed their lives, an outcome which I never could have anticipated, and one I hold in higher regard than any of the dozens of prototypes which have emerged — each of which are valuable in themselves.

The notion that an event would either build community or generate impact is a false choice between two inextricably linked outcomes. Strong projects will inspire a more robust community which understands what success looks like, and a strong community will create the environment from which the most high-impact projects will emerge.

Accountability

Hackathons are incredibly effective at creating accountability. Part of the power of prototypes and community-building are that they drive conversation around what is possible. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a working demo and a team to stand behind it are worth a hundred thousand. The Government 2.0 movement has not just offered promise about how technology can reshape government, it has completely and rapidly reformed the very notion of government and citizen engagement, offering a fully novel suite of previously unimaginable civic tools for government and citizens alike.

Hackathons are one such tool, and part of this revolution has been a complete reassessment of institutions like procurement and provision of public services which before seemed as aged and immovable as government itself. There are certainly limitations to the value that can be produced in 48 hours, no matter how numerous or how talented the people are in the room. But the fact that this conversation is even happening — the fact that citizen-led projects beginning as weekend prototypes are at might be able to compete with commercial products — demonstrates just how much potential these events have to create value and serve as a new form of participation.

During our Summer of Smart initiative last year, we held three civic hackathons on specific issue sets over the course of three months. These were (as far as we know) the first such events where city officials actively participated on hackathon teams, as well as the first engaging a wide variety of city departments (Public Works, Public Health, Environment, MTA, Economic and Workforce Development, Arts Commission, and others) in a direct way. By timing these events with the highly-publicized mayoral race happening at the time, we and our partners helped bring citizen-driven technology and open government to the forefront of the political debate.

Several candidates stopped by the events to learn from project teams, and the summer's four winners presented their work publicly to all 16 candidates at a mayoral forum in October — the first time that citizen-led projects were publicly presented to candidates in the course of an election. Creating this dialog shifted the conversation from citizens asking government what they would provide to the public if elected, to citizens showing government what they could create and provide together, given the right environment.

This accountability layer marks the arrival of a major promise of Government 2.0 — co-production of improved services by and for the public. It is much more difficult to defend time-consuming, closed, traditional procurement policies when citizens can create working demos of efficient, affordable, effective, open products in a matter of days, and build a huge network of support through social media. Hackathons like last year's have opened the eyes of public officials to the possibility of working with teams of citizens to try out new ideas, take risks, and not be afraid to innovate. This means being ready and willing to help take the most promising prototypes to the next level through pilot programs over a longer time period - and this ability to scale by working directly with government is where the real potential impact of hackathons (and extended implementation programs based around them) ultimately lies.

An important counterpoint to keep in mind, however, is that this newfound level of openness and accessibility may make it more difficult for government to be a selective, responsible steward of public funds. San Francisco's Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath, a close partner on much of our work in this space, has been a pioneer in helping government balance these two elements of openness and responsibility. More detailed discussions of this issue can be found on Jay's blog and in this New York Times article discussing the journey of SMARTMuni, one of the projects emerging from Summer of Smart.

Conclusion

Hackathons produce prototypes, community, and accountability unlike any other event format. As a nonprofit focused on creating impact, we've thought a lot about changes to the traditional hackathon model to make it more effective, and have embedded a lot of this thinking into our recent programming - building diverse partnership networks and placing hack weekends within much larger research initiatives over a longer period of time. I summarized this approach and other changes we made in a post last year entitled Four Ways Summer of Smart Reinvented Civic Hackathons.

We took these ideas one step further this year with our Creative Currency initiative, which was informed by two months of on-the-ground community research and built in four months of mentorship, acceleration, and seed funding afterward.

We would love to share these experiences with others to the extent that they can be useful to future events, and continue learning from and working with partners in the field as well. As Mathieu notes, Code For America's work on their Accelerator, Brigade, and Civic Commons has created invaluable progress toward providing a strong rallying point and resource set for growing this community. I would also like to acknowledge the work of OpenPlans, mySociety, Sunlight Foundation, and others in producing groundbreaking projects and APIs which are ripe for additional experiments to expand and build upon in the near future.

Finally, I'd like to congratulate the winning teams and all the participants in this weekend's PDF Applied hackathon who chose to spend their weekend building prototypes, community, and accountability around technology-driven advocacy, and who produced a lot of work to be proud of. A full list of the projects can be found at pdfapplied.challengepost.com.