The power of hackathons in government

| "These citizen-led experiments demonstrate the potential for digital tools to change our lives using creative new models and datasets."

Chris Vein (US deputy CTO for government innovation) has continually supported the use of hackathons in developing government innovation. He noted that these events were exceptional as a ‘sensemaking’ tool for government, encouraging agencies to “…find groups of people, bring them together around an issue or problem that needs to be fixed, then step out of the way and let the collective energy of the people in the room come together and really take that data and solve things in creative and imaginative ways that we would never have done ourselves.”

So what does that mean for us at NASA? 

We are constantly on the lookout for game-changing ideas and technologies – and hackathons can often be the source of exactly those kinds of new ideas. We’re committed to provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning our activities and the results thereof – and hackathons frequently show us insights and applications that we never would have imagined coming from our own work. These technology development events don’t give us all the answers – but they engage the public in exploration of our data and our challenges in creative and compelling ways, sparking a flame that just might become something big and powerful. A hackathon isn’t a product, it’s an approach – and the key to using this “tool in the toolkit” successfully is to invest the effort to identify the right problem statements, provide the supporting data, and get a good mix of people in the room.

As Tim O’Reilly noted, government, at its core, is about doing together what we can’t do alone. It’s why we believe that citizen engagement is vital for space exploration, and it’s the key to answer ‘why a hackathon.’

NASA offers a singular perspective on and understanding of our universe and our Earth’s place in it. With an enormous amount of remote sensing data, Earth observation imagery, and technological expertise, hackathons provides a platform and resources to help equip volunteers to address those global problems, creating a forum for mass collaboration around open data.

Our team is frequently asked about how our efforts related to NASA’s other challenge offerings like the Innovation Pavilion, Centennial Challenges, or NASA Tournament Lab. Each of these programs offers unique and specialized opportunities for public engagement in technology development and represents a vital element in NASA’s open innovation portfolio. Many of them operate under the federal Prizes and Challenges authority/America COMPETES Act, “accelerating problem-solving by tapping America’s top talent and best expertise wherever it may lie.” At the same time, they are very different platforms serving a unique role in government innovation – hackathons are non-monetized mass collaborations that differ widely from those monetized prize competitions (see the challenge.gov platform) that have been the trend in government over the past few years.

NYC’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne noted that mass collaborations bridge sectors and connect the government and technology communities with a shared challenge, encouraging collaborative problem solving and a more open government. Monetized competitions often aren’t able to access these same benefits. Hackathons are incredibly effective at building community; making and creating together forges deep and powerful connections across people, communities, and organizations.

Hackathons also feature an open design process, equipping developers directly with the data that they need and clearly demonstrating what the public wants and needs. The commitment to open, agile development and open source licensing – as opposed to a more compartmentalized procurement process – produces a product better connected to the agency’s original need as well as to the public’s interest and expertise.

The process of a hackathon provides a fundamentally different product because it engages a full community of citizens who purposely collaborate in the real work of their government – in this case, the work of “reaching for new heights and revealing the unknown.” Hackathons create a mechanism for the public to share feedback and ideas via access to government decision makers. Creative and innovative concepts are introduced that help evolve government to be more efficient and effective. “Politics is not changing; government is changing, and because government ultimately derives its power from us (remember we the people) how we think about it is going to affect how that change happens.” explained Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka.

Events like the International Space Apps Challenge really do represent how a new generation is tackling the challenges of government: with collective action. The future of government requires engaged citizens who are contributing their skills and talents to the core mission of exploring the unknown and pioneering the future. The key to improving life on Earth – and enabling us to explore further into the universe – is to roll up our sleeves, do it together, and then let it go viral, just like Jennifer describes. NASA needs technology to tackle the grand challenges it faces – but it also needs policy specialists, engineers, storytellers, educators, and diverse perspectives.

Jake Levitas concludes: “Hackathons are incredibly effective at creating accountability. Part of the power of prototypes and community-building are that they drive conversation around what is possible. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a working demo and a team to stand behind it are worth a hundred thousand. The Government 2.0 movement has not just offered promise about how technology can reshape government, it has completely and rapidly reformed the very notion of government and citizen engagement, offering a fully novel suite of previously unimaginable civic tools for government and citizens alike… There are certainly limitations to the value that can be produced in 48 hours, no matter how numerous or how talented the people are in the room. But the fact that this conversation is even happening — the fact that citizen-led projects beginning as weekend prototypes are at might be able to compete with commercial products — demonstrates just how much potential these events have to create value and serve as a new form of participation.”

Hackathons jumpstart change. These events build relationships between disciplines, mine data for new useful content, develop new technology approaches, create economic value, propel STEM education, provide prototypes for experimentation – often at a much lower cost than other more traditional approaches.

NASA has continually expressed its long-time commitment to transparency and accountability, disseminating its open data and encouraging participatory exploration, and we are excited to continue to advocate for hackathons (including NASA’s Random Hacks of Kindness partnership) as we demonstrate what is possible – in concept, word, and actual prototype.

 

“NASA will be reaping the benefits of the International Space Apps Challenge for a very long time.”
Chris Vein at Open Source Summit DC

 

Interested in more examples of government hackathons? Follow some of the powerful stories here:

Vivek Kundra’s Apps for Democracy with guide to creating your own event

USAID’s Food Security Challenge with info on how to get involved here

EPA’s Apps for the Environment with final report/lessons learned here

World Bank’s Waterhackathon with final report/lessons learned here

State’s TechCamp and instructions to hold your own with TechCamp-in-a-box

NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge with final report/lessons learned here and debrief here

 

 


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