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How Civic Hackathons Everywhere Can Learn from Latin America

BY Susannah Vila | Wednesday, March 12 2014

Hackers at Desarrollando America Latina (DAL) (credit: Buenos Aires Data/flickr)

Look at what the public or social sector in any major city is doing to leverage new technologies and you’re likely to find an abundance of unfinished and unused civic applications.

Such graveyards of software applications are an unfortunate byproduct of of the app contests and hackathons that forward-thinking cities like to promote. Latin America has as many as any other part of the world, but it also has the Desarrollando America Latina (DAL) network. DAL is experimenting with new models for generating technology solutions to social problems. Efforts in other parts of the world - from New York to Nairobi - should study their lessons learned.

Learning the Right Lessons

Here’s how DAL worked when it emerged three years ago in 2011. Code developers came together at the same time in a handful of countries in the region. They poked around public data sets, formed teams and developed a prototype of a software application in 48 hours. Stakeholders (people who already care about the problems getting solved) were nowhere to be found, which made it unlikely that the new software would get taken up by individuals and groups working on the social challenge at hand.

To change this DAL made some improvements in 2012. They began to add components that encouraged participants to learn as much as possible about social problems - clogged urban transport and pollution, opaque public spending or poorly performing teachers, schools and doctors - before coming up with ideas for apps that might alleviate these problems. They held ideation meetings that gave technologists the opportunity to brainstorm with stakeholders way before the hackathon began, and provided winning teams with a month of mentorship.

Then, in 2013, DAL doubled down on these improvements: one ideation meeting became a season-long series. NGOs and public officials joined teams of coders as contestants not as advisors but as fellow contestants. They worked together on tech solutions that are rooted in understandings of problems that can only come from years spent working to alleviate those problems. After this incubation period, judges (disclaimer: I was a judge) awarded 2-3 teams with the chance to receive three months of mentorship and residency in at an accelerator in Santiago, Chile.

2013’s Winners And Why They're Different

The winning projects aren’t extraordinary in their own right but they are indicative of DAL's expanded methodology. Examples include Tu Primer Trabajo (Your First Job), created by a Buenos Aires based NGO called Reciduca that builds alliances with low-income high schools to provide students with opportunities, training and other resources. “We noticed they always seem to make the same mistakes” throughout the job process, says Reciduca’s Luis Firmat. The application is a game that aims to stop job seekers from repeating similar mistakes. There’s also Conciliador Virtual, which connects stalled court cases to virtual adjudicators so they can be resolved without going to a judge. In Brazil, 20 million new court cases are opened every year and, according to interviews done with judges by the team behind this project, 70% of them could be resolved without going to court.

At first blush, Mi Primer Trabajo might sound like something you’ve seen a million times before. Conciliador Virtual may strike you as unrealistic - how would you train all those adjudicators to work online? Wouldn’t this have to be pushed from within Brazilian bureaucracy? However, 2013’s winners stand out for two reasons. The first is that they were conceived of and developed in conjunction with stakeholders from NGOs and government. Recudida is already running programs that benefit their app’s main audience; The Brazilian Ministry of Justice is already working with Concilador Virtual. Two, winning contestants will have been working on their projects for a total of a year. That’s a lot more time than a weekend, and it makes for more opportunity to collect feedback, to build strong relationships with people who are important for the product’s success, and to get so committed to a piece of software that you won’t let it fall into the software application graveyard with all the other app prototypes that were created during hackathons.

For those working in government, as independent civic technology enthusiasts or in the social sector, it’s an opportune moment to start paying closer attention to evolving methodologies from around the world that show the most promise, investing time into understanding why they work better, and improving existing initiatives and programs so that they generate applications that solve real people’s problems.

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