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No Partisan Apps At Koch Institute Sponsored Hackathon, After All

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, June 28 2013

Despite all the controversy surrounding the Koch Institute-backed Liberty hackathon that took place last weekend in San Francisco, none of the apps that its participants built were remotely partisan.

The winner of the contest, Checkbox, proposed an open-source online voting system. The runner-up, "Newspora," was a crowd-funded investigative news platform, and the third-prize winner was a coaching platform/video call-to-action tool. Members of the seven other teams whipped up prototypes that aimed to enable citizens to discover candidates' positions on specific issues, to crowdsource "entrepreneurship knowledge" for entrepreneurs in developing countries, to make financial brokerage performance transparent, and to track political news. One app was described as a "Yelp for Cops" -- "give feedback on police performance and report abuse on the fly."

Around 100 people stayed during the entire week-end event, and even Andy Barkett, the Republican National Committee's new chief technology officer, made an appearance before heading off on a plane to Washington, D.C.

Judges of the projects included entrepreneur and investor Scott Banister, Caplinked CEO and entrepreneur Eric Jackson, 3taps CEO and entrepreneur Greg Kidd, and DevBootcamp, Everlane Co-founder Jesse Farmer, and Palo Alto's Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental.

Some jurisdictions in the world -- namely Estonia -- do conduct their elections online. But U.S. security experts have constantly warned that online voting isn't ready for prime time. There are just too many opportunities for hackers to intervene. Reichental said in an interview that the scoring system in the voting process didn't account for feasibility. During the Q&A part of the judging process, he told the Checkbox creators that their application would probably fare better in the private sector.

"I said that breaking into government with this solution is not impossible, but it's very hard right now for a whole number of reasons," he said. "But could you apply your system to a voting system in a conference, or for members of a condo board?"

Checkbox creator Breck Yunits and his friend and team member Cameron Urban proposed online voting because they thought that the simplicity of their system would encourage more people to vote. Their idea is to have county clerks generate digital codes unique to each voter, who would enter their codes online in order to access and cast their ballots. Their software is written in a new programming language called Space."

In an interview, Yunits said that the system would lower the cost of elections, and that if officials suspect fraud, they could easily organize a re-do.

As for the storm over the hackathon itself? Garrett Johnson, co-founder of SendHub, who organized the event along with Aaron Ginn of StumbleUpon, downplayed it as a misunderstanding. The goal of the hackathon was to create apps that enhanced democracy and liberty, he said. Both Johnson and Ginn are self-identified Republicans. Ginn worked on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

"Everyone will not understand and embrace what you're trying to do," he said. "In fact, the vast majority will not understand it at the beginning stages. It's your job and goal to be persuasive."