In January 2014, the City of Austin, Texas.gov, Open Austin, and the CIO Academy Hackathon Committee held a Government Hackathon Workshop to discuss the costs and benefits of using hackathons to improve government service.
The workshop was held at the Asian American Resource Center at 8401 Cameron Road in Austin. This is an attractive, recently constructed, fully capable event facility operated by Austin Parks and Recreation, with staff onsite and exhibits describing the Asian American experience in Texas.
The stated goal of the workshop was “to provide a toolkit of information and resources to help you initiate hackathons at your own organization.” This goal was accomplished through presentations, an information-packed slide deck, and a hands-on walk through.
Presenters were Pete Eichhorn (@pkeich) of Texas.gov, Chip Rosenthal (@chipr) of Open Austin, and the City of Austin’s Matthew “Mateo” Esquibel (@atxgo), Austin has shown great leadership in making data accessible through the Austin Open Data Portal at data.austintexas.gov. It helped that they defined “open data” as data that is made actionable, and noted that “hackathon” is a term that can be easily confused with the outlaw hacking community. A representative from Open Houston said their next event is a “write-a-thon,” where volunteers will redesign the city’s parking signs and web icons and rewrite obscure city codes.
I asked about concerns that hackathons use volunteer labor when the private sector could provide and guarantee their products. The consensus in the room was that hackathons shouldn’t be overdone, but they are a way to give the public a voice in identifying problems and a hand in crafting solutions. Other advantages mentioned are a short turnaround time for a team-oriented solution using “blue sky” thinking.
One conversation centered around how you get people signed up for an event. Web tools such as Meetup and Eventbrite are popular. Open Austin uses Austin-based Ticketbud. Pete Eichhorn said that Texas.gov wants to be a platform for publishing open data and is going to use Socrata to get there.
Participants split into groups and a quick charrette was conducted: identify a problem that open data can address, and propose a solution. We used a “Kick-Start Canvas” created by the City of Austin Communications & Technology Management department. The canvas, a placemat-sized chart, had these elements:
- Problem. List top 3 problems. Examples: Lack of mobile access to services, field work inefficient, not transparent or innovative, nothing in vendor-space.
- Customer segments. Target customers. Examples: Austin residents, local business owners, volunteer applications developers, researchers.
- Unique value proposition. Single, clear, compelling message that states why you are different and worthy of selection. Examples: city endorsed, easily adaptable/scalable, free to users.
- Solution. Top 3 features. Examples: GPS/map, alerts/notifications, data visualizations, social media integration.
- Datasets. Dataset name and description. Examples: 311 call distribution by percentage, affordable housing inventory, municipal court violation locations.
- Marketing strategy. General plan of action for marketing the product. Examples: Design/branding, messaging, promotional tools and channels (social media, press, etc.).
- Key metrics. Key activities you measure. Examples: Number of views, number of downloads, number of comments, community ratings (1-5 stars).
My group proposed a database of public meeting facilities that showed location, amenities, and availability, and allowed the public to reserve rooms online. For the effort, we received the “most likely to be LIKED” award.