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The Permanent Hackathon

BY Susannah Vila | Thursday, August 1 2013

Aren't you tired of pictures of hackathons? (Gary Dee/Wikimedia)

A typical hackathon draws together a group of programmers and designers who collaborate to create new apps over a few days of frenzied coding, sometimes to win a prize. Since hackathons were first popularized in the early 2000s by Silicon Valley tech companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and Yelp, social good organizations have also used these events to spur the creation of applications with a civic purpose -- monitoring patterns in air pollution,making data about public spending more searchable, or providing farmers with real time data to help them decide which crops to plant -- for example.

But as some have noted, including TechPresident’s David Eaves and, elsewhere, David Sasaki and Clay Johnson, these short term hackathons rarely work to address longer term problems. The incentive structure and narrow time frame of hackathons make it difficult to yield finished prototypes of civic apps, let alone ones that get used or scaled.

That’s why the discussion about hackathons is moving beyond their relative merit to the question of how they can be improved. New projects are starting to reimagine the hackathon model so that it’s less focused on discrete time-frames, ticking clocks and prize money, and more focused on building lasting communities across sectors, using physical spaces like innovation hubs, event series and virtual conversations. As these recent experiences suggest, replacing the traditional hackathon model with one that’s based on a continuous conversation promises three key advantages.

More Time For Brainstorming and Collaboration

Desarrollando America Latina (DAL) is a network of civic technologists that held its first series of hackathons in six countries in 2011. In that year, forty prototypes were created and zero were finished. DAL decided to address this in 2012 by holding ideation meetings in each country. This gave technologists the opportunity to brainstorm with stakeholders way before the hackathon began, and after the event, they provided winning teams with a month of mentorship. This longer time frame helped more applications move towards completion: in 2012 around ten apps were completed out of sixty or seventy prototypes, and the winning apps are holding onto their momentum.

Yacine Khelladi organizes DAL’s sister network, Developing the Caribbean (DAC) in the Dominican Republic, and decided to try something similar for the 2012 contest, which he held in June. He began his process by inviting experts to an ideation, or brainstorming, meeting. Then he held a hackathon focused on education, selected four winners and gave each winner a month of mentoring from four professors at the Dominican Republic Institute of Technology. During this mentorship period, he facilitated a Google Group for mentors to communicate with stakeholders. The jury is still out on whether Khelladi’s decision to add ideation meetings and mentorship periods to its hackathon will make a difference.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the most socially-focused innovation hubs that form a part of the Afrilabs network, Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub, has also adjusted its model. They’ve held eight hackathons over the past two years and initially experienced the same challenges as DAL and DAC. Their response was to move towards a three step process: idea generation, hackathon, and a pre-incubation period.

“Pre-incubation is intended to support prototypes beyond the hackathon,” says the hub’s Tunji Eleso, who is the Director of Pre-Incubation, but each stage provides more opportunity for brainstorming among members of the hub community. Developers participate in focus groups with users and a series called Showcase Tuesdays, where the hub community gives feedback on their prototypes. Examples of apps that have emerged from this process include Your Budgit and Efiko.

These are pretty niche applications, but the fact that they came out of a community that’s nurtured and managed by staff like Eleso make it more likely that they’ll be sufficiently supported. At the very least, the people who brainstormed with the app creators will care about what happens to them, and the hub’s community makes it easier for this kind of brainstorming to happen.

More Time and Resources to Strengthen Community and Commit Stakeholders

In the case of DAL, the relationships provided by its regional community incentivizes participation. The groups coordinating hackathons in-country get paid very little if anything at all, but spend time and energy organizing because of the value they get from the network. “Because it is regional and because it sounds like such a great partnership and buddy system, people want to get involved” says Anca Matioc, the coordinator of DAL.

Nurturing a community of people from different sectors also makes it easier for those apps that do get finished to find users. “The apps that were the most successful,” notes Matioc, were the apps where stakeholders were involved even after the hackathon.” As an example, she describes the experience of the 2012 third prize winner in Costa Rica, who got connected to the digital governance team within the federal government, giving them added buzz that helped to get their app, Epicentro, off the ground. Epicentro assuages an anxiety that lots of people in Costa Rica have, sending them push notifications about recent seismic activity so they can hypothetically be more prepared for a quake. That is likely why the government was interested in supporting the app.

In general it’s pretty rare for civic applications to have the time or resources for audience research and marketing, but access to local and regional stakeholders can make it easier to build buzz without a marketing budget.

An Opportunity to Linger in the Problem Space

Ensuring that a civic application actually addresses peoples’ problems is a great, if obvious, way to make sure that it gets users. Hackathons don’t provide the time or the incentives for technologists to, as the San Francisco based organization Aspiration Tech puts it, “linger in the problem space.” Ideation meetings and incubation periods do help to better integrate the perspectives of people who understand social problems, but physical spaces and ongoing conversations are even better.

Kiko Mayorga is the co-founder of Escuelab, a Lima based hackerspace and education center, and also a DAL country hackathon organizer. As he describes it:

For organized civil society to get the culture of technologists there has to be not just one meeting but regular encounters. You need to meet and see what happens, then meet and see what happens, then meet and see what happens - over and over again. It’s a process.

The process that Mayorga refers to requires both time and management. That’s why it makes a lot more sense to support the creation of well-facilitated communities than two or three day contests. This is working for projects like Nigeria’s Co-Creation hub thanks to key support from the Indigo Trust. It’s working for Code For America'sNew York City brigade, which boasts its very ownfull time community organizer andLISC Chicago’s efforts to create demand for open data with community events. It’s working for the communities for open data enthusiasts in particular countries that are facilitated by the Open Knowledge Foundation. It would likely also work for hubs like Mayorga’s and those of other DAL and DAC in-country coordinators. Weekly meetups, mailing lists, and coworking spaces are, it turns out, more important levers for technology-aided social change than any codesprint ever was.

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