Blogging for America

Building The New Civic Hackathon

Sometimes, a word can’t do justice to an idea.

To some, the word “hackathon” means a somewhat narrow, one-dimensional kind of event that attracts software developers cloistered away to tinker with new APIs – fueled by pizza, Red Bull, and the incessant beats of the very latest dubstep jam.

Hackers at a Hackathon

And while hackathons of all varieties usually bear some resemblance to this description, those focused on addressing social or civic challenges are often so much more. Civic hacking events are focused on finding solutions to the problems facing our communities and play an important part in the effort to open government data for use by citizens, activists, and journalists.

Over the past year, civic hackathon organizers have grown increasingly creative in how they structure these events, and increasingly deliberate in planning for the long-term impact from them.

There are trends developing in how civic hackathons are being organized – new strategies that may point the way to what civic hacking events could look like in the months (or years) ahead. In essence, we’re seeing savvy event organizers hack the generally accepted idea of what a hackathon is thought to be.

We can see examples of this new creativity in civic hackathons on both coasts, and they contain similar elements.

In Philadelphia, the OpenGov News Hackathon – part of Philly Tech Week, and held in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation – is a mashup of journalism unconference and open data hackathon. More clearly than most events, this one underscores the important relationships between civic hackers and journaists, and the common interest they both have in open government data.

In Baltimore, Web Slam – which is being organized by a collective of educators, non-profits and activists – will bring together local technology leaders and urban high school students to learn how to write code while building projects for area non-profits.

In San Francisco, the Creative Currency Project – spearheaded by the Grey Area Foundation for the Arts – will bring together technologists and coders with experts in crowdfunding and social finance to “…reimagine our systems of exchange from the ground up.”

What sets these events apart from other hackathons? What makes them the template for future events with a lasting impact?

A hyper-local focus – each event is focused on a specific issue or acute need facing the host community. In Philadelphia, the focus is digital access; in Baltimore its bringing technology innovation into schools; in San Francisco its addressing homelessness and social inequity in the Mid-Market section of the city.

Secondary benefits – beyond the stated theme for these events, each is organized in a way that will ensure secondary benefits beyond the standard outcome for a hacking event. Philadelphia’s event will highlight the important of open data to innovation in journalism; Baltimore’s event will provide much needed assistance to the non-profit community; San Francisco’s event will highlight the often overlooked issues of homelessness and systemic poverty.

Easily exportable – the format for each event is one that could be easily replicated in other cities. The needs which drive the focus of these events are not unique to the cities that will hold them – every city faces these problems to one degree or another. To the extent that these events generate useful ideas or tools for addressing these problems, organizers in other cities can efficiently emulate these events in their communities.

These aren’t your older brothers’ hackathons. The people organizing these events are all civic hacking veterans who have been to and/or organized other events in the past. They are using their experience in civic hacking and their passion for their communities to build a new breed of hackathon.

While words sometimes don’t do justice to an idea, these events will almost certainly do justice to the communities where they are being organized.

Hopefully we’ll continue to see creative events like these being pulled together in cities across the country in the near future.

Code for America Labs, Inc is a non-partisan, non-political 501(c)(3) organization. Content is licensed through Creative Commons.