Hacking the Hackathon

Your city publishes high-quality open data, and you use that data to make smart policy decisions. Done? Not so fast. Your open data also has great potential to empower residents and foster civic engagement.

Not sure how this would work in your city? You’re in luck! Many cities have experimented with engaging residents through open data. In this post I will describe how it was done in the City of Austin, Texas.

For the Code Across Austin V / Civic Hack Summit, part of the national Code Across activity, I worked with the members of the local civic technology group Open Austin to develop and implement a new approach to the conventional hackathon model.

Hackathons are a popular type of gathering where programmers and designers build applications over a short period of time and sometimes compete for a top prize. Cities and local groups have hosted hackathons to bring the community together and build projects that are useful for residents or address a community need.

Standard hackathons usually combine project ideation, development, and deployment into a single event. Unfortunately, with so much packed into a single day or weekend-long event, the result is one or two projects with real potential, while the rest fall by the wayside.

Hackathons themselves can be very exciting and productive, but taking an unstructured approach can easily lead to projects that never reach completion or are not focused on real community needs.

At Open Austin, we thought we could make a better hackathon, and with the help of city officials and local volunteers, we set out to try something new. For the 2015 Civic Hack Summit, instead of asking volunteers to develop an app from start to finish, we asked them to identify community needs and build plans around those needs for a long-term project. Many of the plans were for apps and websites, but volunteers also identified the need for policy research and user-interface standards.

To help volunteers move from a problem statement to a project, we hacked a tool commonly used in the agile methodology called the “business model canvas.” This new “Civic Tech Planning Canvas” gave attendees the framework to develop a successful project plan. The tool, also known as the “hack canvas,” prompts volunteers to identify a community need and a potential solution to that problem. The canvas also prompts users to identify the project’s stakeholders, partners, resources, and features. As far as we know, this was the first implementation of the Civic Tech Planning Canvas at any hackathon.

Civic Tech Planning Canvas
Civic Tech Planning Canvas

Using the canvases, groups created 11 different project proposals within six policy themes, ranging from a noise ordinance mapping tool to a streamlined portal for accessing government services and forms.

With 11 project ideas fully fleshed out, volunteers had four months until the ATX Hack for Change to continue planning or start developing the ideas from the Civic Hack Summit. At the ATX Hack for Change, which solicited new project ideas as well as ideas from city employees, city organizers and volunteers had a great slate of project ideas to import that were not only well-planned and addressed a community need, but also had champions ready to bring the project to the next level.

The first key takeaway from my hackathon experience is that momentum is hard to sustain, and any successful approach needs a long-term plan.

Second, a civic hackathon is more successful when the community comes together to create a project they own, rather than forming ad-hoc teams around ideas with little or no potential to survive.

Third, there is an important role for the city government to play when planning hackathon events. For example, the Austin Innovation Office and Information Technology department were instrumental in providing support for these events and actively participated in working on projects with the community. Click here for a list of projects that Open Austin has completed, or is currently working on.

With the next Code Across event taking place on March 5-6, cities have a great upcoming opportunity to try out these community engagement practices and spur interest in using open data to create social good.

Do you have other ideas about hosting successful civic engagement events in your community? Let us know at govex@jhu.edu.