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From soup kitchens to shelters to rescue efforts, volunteerism has long been a trend in many cultures. In recent years, it’s found a place in the IT community, with coders coming together to participate in “hackathons” to work on a problem for the public good.

Hackathons coincide with the open data movement

The rise of hackathons in the public sector comes at an auspicious time when many in the United States and elsewhere are raising their voices to advocate for the open use of public data. Big Data is certainly big in government: our countries, states, and municipalities generate enormous amounts of data, with much of it devoid of personally identifiable information that would require privacy measures. The open data movement seeks to make that data accessible not just by query, but by default to create opportunities for civic engagement. Groups such as Open Government Data work to move this agenda forward and organizations like OpenColorado provide data-sharing platforms to help organizations publish their data in an open format. Once data is made available in open data catalogs, it can be consumed and used in an abundance of ways to improve people’s lives. Across the United States and beyond, hacakthaons are bringing together coders, project managers, designers, public organizations, and sponsors to make that happen.

What does a hackathon look like?

Hackathons come in all shapes and sizes. One that I work on called Hack4Colorado is a typical example. Scheduled to take place over a weekend, it opens on a Friday night with a brainstorming “idea-thon” where people pitch their concepts and project teams are formed. This next day is devoted to hacking, as coders hunker down to solve a problem in an atmosphere that is part indoor camping and part final exam cramming. The final day feature presentations of the applications, judging, and, sometimes, prizes.

Hackathons generate cool apps

When creative technical minds get together it can result in some very cool ‒ and very usable ‒ software. Here’s a sampling of the kinds of applications that have come out of some of the hackathons that I’ve either heard about or worked on as a project manager.

  • MoveMyMusic ‒ Hatched by a primary school teacher, this application enables her to provide individualized learning and student evaluation in a classroom setting by using iPads to teach children music.
  • Choose your issue (Happygov.com) ‒ Here, developers use a heat map application from Denver’s 3-1-1 data to allow neighborhood residents to vote on which civic issues are most important to them, from quality of life concerns like graffiti removal to fixing potholes in the street.
  • Where can I park? ‒ With the rapid growth of urban populations, office towers, and high-rises, finding city parking is a huge challenge that impacts economic development and quality of life. Designers at a Boston-area hackathon proposed a concept to use sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help drivers locate parking spots.
  • Man’s best friend ‒ In Palo Alto, where hackathons can take place over a series of months, a team developed an app to match people with homeless pets to solve a civic issue in a humane way.
  • PermitMe – In Boston, hackers developed an app to scrape permitting data, showing  applicants where a permit is in the approval process and who they can call for an update on the permit’s status.

What do hackathons for the public sector need to succeed?

The pairing of hackathons with open data presents a wide-open frontier. But as with any new initiative, there are challenges.

  • Open data ‒ While certain data should be publicly available, the process of getting it that way is not always simple. Often, an organization just isn’t set up to publish it in an open data catalog, in a format that can be easily consumed. This issue requires awareness and ongoing advocacy at every level of government and from associations like Open Government Data, OpenColorado, and others.
  • Sustainability ‒ Following a hacking event, people may lose interest in the apps they’ve created and neglect to update them so the apps will remain current. Sometimes the resulting code is not shared to enable additional coding or updating. As hackathons evolve, it’s likely that organizers will gain experience in creating processes and guidelines to address this.

Getting involved

Despite any obstacles, there’s no question that holding open data hackathons is a growing movement. With never-ending technology advances and the ongoing need of governments to serve the public, the possibilities for hackathons are endless. I’ve participated in some in Boston and Denver, and am inspired by large-scale events like the White House‒sponsored National Day of Civic Hacking, as well as local events held in virtually every municipality. The beauty of hackathons is that everyone can get involved –  from coders to designers to project managers to sponsors, all are welcome. A small investment of your time and talent can mean a big investment in a better community.

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