A codeathon is a unique forum for collaborative problem solving that results in concrete software solutions that can be implemented to address critical challenges.   A codeathon celebrates software development in its most positive context—using minimal resources and maximum brainpower to create outside-the-box solutions in response to interesting problems.  Codeathon events are technology development marathons, drawing on the talents and initiative of the best and the brightest software developers, engineers, designers and technologists from around the world, who volunteer their time to respond to real-world problems with solutions than can have immediate impact.

As our team leads preparations for the upcoming International Space Apps Challenge, I find myself frequently addressing a specific question: why a codeathon? Why not a more traditional innovation challenge, or research partnership, or just a request for proposal? It works for tech companies, but can it really work for government?

Tonight I came across this excellent TED talk by Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka called Coding for Better Government. Jennifer doesn’t just describe the apps that her developers are creating, but she argues for the way technology can help engage citizens to reframe the way government works.

If you aren’t familiar with Code for America, it’s a public service opportunity that engages the “web generation” in fellowships to help governments work better. “Code for America helps governments become more connected, lean, and participatory through new opportunities for public service — both inside and outside government — so we’re not only making a direct impact everyday, but also creating the relationships and network for lasting change.”

Watch here:

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 codeathon.’

Fundamentally, the better process of a codeathon has the ability to provide a better product because it engages a full community of citizens in the real work of their government. NYC’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne recently addressed the power of codeathons in government, noting that collaboration bridges sectors and connects the government and technology communities with a shared challenge, encouraging collaborative problem solving and a more open government. Codeathons 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. Codeathons also feature an open design process, equipping developers directly with the data that they need and clearly demonstrating what the public wants and needs.

“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.”

Events like the Apps Challenge really do represent how a new generation is tackling the problem of government: with collective action. We need 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.

“[This generation isn’t] fighting that battle we’re all fighting about who gets to speak – they all get to speak. They don’t care so much about using their voices… they are using their hands to make their communities better. When it comes to the big things we need to do together, are we just going to be a crowd of voices? Or are we also going to be a crowd of hands?”

Are you ready to contribute your hands to the collective work of space exploration?

Come and get involved in the International Space Apps Challenge or Random Hacks of Kindness.

About Ali

Community Advocate

NASA Headquarters

alicia.llewellyn-1@nasa.gov