Contemplating Change for Coding Competitions, Hackathons

State and municipal agencies take different approaches to hackathons, coding competitions and app challenges, which have altered — and are an important fixture in — the tech world.

by / February 17, 2017
Go Code Colorado Program Manager Andrew Cole speaks at the 2017 Kick-Off Event held Feb. 1. Facebook/GoCodeColorado

As it enters its fourth year, Go Code Colorado, the statewide business app competition run by officials in the Secretary of State’s office, has produced several notable online tools.

Among them are Beagle Score, a website that rates state business locations; Hively, which lets companies compare job seekers’ skills and personalities early in the interview process; and Regulation Explorer, which helps the oil and gas industry resolve regulatory issues early in project development.

The challenge statement for this year’s event is a stripped-down call to action that widens the playing field for developers while recalling the event’s original vision: “Build an app that uses public data to solve a problem for a business decision-maker.”

Go Code Colorado began in 2014 with the goal of getting people to use and prove the value of data that state agencies were making public.

It was a chicken and egg problem in that “not a lot of agencies took the time to make their data accessible,” said event Program Manager Andrew Cole. “Not a lot of people knew public data was an asset they could use to create innovative solutions.”

But much has changed in the years since, as agencies around the nation have become increasingly transparent, publicized their data and invited others to fashion something useful from it. Having marked its kick-off weekend Feb. 1 with an appearance by Secretary of State Wayne Williams to a standing-room-only crowd, Go Code Colorado now inhabits a changed world that it helped shape.

Go Code's History

Initially piloted through the state budget, Go Code Colorado is now set in place by legislation. State agencies in Colorado increasingly acknowledge data’s burgeoning power. And from temperature trackers to opioid epidemic resources to pothole reporters, they and their peers around the nation are seeding the creation of a plethora of useful tools for residents.

So far as Cole and Colorado officials know, theirs is still the only state to host a “true statewide app challenge,” though other states and municipalities have sponsored and been involved in similar events.

Creator and engineer Wojciech Magda, who has been on three winning Go Code Colorado teams, said he agrees with that characterization and called it “very, very ambitious.”

“I know of citywide competitions but not anything statewide,” said Magda, a founder of both Beagle Score and Regulation Explorer.

Colorado Chief Data Officer Jon Gottsegen said showing what can be done with open data streams “definitely has strengthened our open data initiative.”

“One of the selling points that we say about opening up data is people start to use it in ways you never expected. That brings additional value to the data and to the state,” Gottsegen said.

But as its challenge date of April 27 nears, Go Code Colorado could be at something of a crossroads.

“We’re actually at a little bit of an inflection point. Whether we always have to run it in the form it lives right now, I don’t know,” Cole said. “It’s just something that, we don’t want to just keep doing the same thing for the sake of doing the same thing.”

In four years, the challenge has produced roughly five winning apps and tools that are still up and running, and around five that Cole said don’t appear to be “actively being pursued.”

Officials are pleased with the event’s results, having not based their success on the commercial viability of any tools created at the event. But they acknowledge it may also be time to reassess.

“The original goal, well, the kind of parallel goals when we set it up were to help expose, and in practice that means publishing, public data. And then the parallel goal was engaging people in using it. The challenge has been the primary way we have gone about the second part of that goal, but arguably the parallel goals together form a virtuous cycle,” Cole said, meaning that the two goals work together symbiotically.

Sean Wittmeyer, co-founder of Beagle Score with Magda, said he’s proud to have created one of just a few successful, winning tools at the event, which he said “feels Colorado.”

“In New York, it’s so fast-paced it’s go, go, go, ‘We need to build that.’ The West Coast, it’s, something hot is always around the corner. Colorado, we don’t have that fervor, we don’t have that intensity," Wittmeyer said. "We have people who make things, they make good things, and they keep making them better.”

Wittmeyer praised Go Code Colorado but also critiqued it — emphasizing he was not criticizing — as “stuck” between being a hackathon and a technology incubator. The event has attracted the right sponsors, he said, but its schedule isn’t fully conducive to maturing concepts and it doesn’t provide winners sufficient funds to establish a start-up.

“I think it’s a good program but how can we make it better? The way they’re connected to the community as a whole, I think that’s great. It’s just, how do they get people to participate at the level they want,” Wittmeyer added.

And that, Cole said in a follow-up interview with Government Technology, is good feedback.

“We were kind of intentionally living between the two because we didn’t feel like we needed to stand up the resources of a full-on incubator or accelerator, but we did feel like we needed more resources than a weekend project,” he said. "That’s just part of the constant goal of evaluating ourselves and just deciding whether we need to do something different."

Variations on a Theme

Not surprisingly, considering the varying stages of open data that exist at state and local agencies nationwide, other cities and states sponsor or are involved in similar but not identical events.

Like Go Code Colorado, New York City’s BigApps competition began when open data’s value had fewer advocates and proof points than it does now. But the city has continually pushed to make public data available to drive the event.

In 2009, its inaugural year, BigApps competitors worked on 170 open data sets from 30 city agencies. Today, after two mayors and chief technology officers have made open data a priority, New York City offers more than 1,300 open data streams.

BigApps focuses on “creating solutions that are anchored in the needs of real New Yorkers,” according to an official at the city’s Economic Development Corp who is familiar with the event. It is also increasingly focused on ensuring its winners accomplish more than just taking home a prize.

In 2016, BigApps partnered with the new nonprofit Civic Hall Labs, the research and development arm of Civic Hall, a collaborative work and event space and community of people interested in using technology for the public good. Civic Hall Labs mentored and advised winners and offered workshops to help refine their projects.

This year, Civic Hall Labs has an expanded role, actually managing BigApps and ensuring the event’s solutions are truly focused on New Yorkers.

In 2015, BigApps’ challenges centered around affordable housing, zero waste, connected cities and civic engagement.

For its 2017 edition, BigApps will focus on three populations — seniors, youth and immigrants — and then overlay challenge areas of improving knowledge, transportation and community resiliency.

“Our main theory is you should design with the people you are trying to serve, not just for them,” said Civic Hall Labs Co-Founder and Board Chairman Andrew Rasiej.

“There’s lots of these things bubbling up. You’ve probably heard about Code For America,” Rasiej said, referring to similar events. “But what we’re trying to help advance is that there’s more likelihood of success when you follow a design process around making sure the right people and the right technologies are around the table to achieve a particular result.”

The nonprofit Heat Seek, a 2014 BigApps winner, is a “quintessential example” of that, Rasiej said. Its team created a sensor and online database to log hourly temperature readings in frigid New York City apartments whose landlords may be breaking the law by failing to provide heat.

The results have been successfully used in court to get settlements for tenants and compel landlords to pledge in stipulations that they agree to provide heat in the future.

But Heat Seek is still in beta mode, reaching out on a limited basis to tenants with “known bad actors” for landlords, and working with tenant lawyers and community organizers to think through scenarios where its data can make the biggest difference. Executive Director Noelle Francois described development as a “longer and windier road” than originally envisioned.

“So there’s a lot more support post-BigApps now versus when we competed, which I think is awesome,” said Francois, who has since been brought in by Civic Hall Labs to be a BigApps mentor. “But I think the great thing about BigApps is … it drives the competition to build better technology to make New York City a better place for everyone.”

And that, Rasiej said, sort of brings us to the bigger point. "One of the reasons BigApps is so important is it doesn’t just deliver a project or solution that should exist," he said. "It’s an opportunity to reinvent civic engagement for the 21st century.”

Sam Frons, a founder of the foundation behind the app Addicaid, a 2015 BigApps winner, said the competition’s sections might be too specific and prevent companies from joining.

But she also praised the event for helping the app transition from its initial vision as a meeting finder to a dynamic combination of therapeutic approaches to recovery that is infused with artificial intelligence and personalized to the individual.

“They brought us to the next level. By giving us the support to really think about Addicaid as a business. We have a plan to get revenue over the next months so we can be a sustainable business,” said Frons, noting that the foundation, now supported by around $70,000 in grant and prize money, has plans to open a seed round.

Not for Everyone

Some agencies elsewhere, however, have been cooler toward actively sponsoring coding sessions, hackathons and incubations.

In Connecticut, Chief Data Officer Tyler Kleykamp said his state hasn’t sponsored any such events because size matters, and Connecticut has just five cities with more than 100,000 residents.

“We don’t have a really big city to draw on apart from Stamford,” Kleykamp said. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is, rather than hold our own civic-focused hackathon, is to jump on board with some of the other hackathons that might be occurring in Connecticut.”

The state is no stranger to tech-facing events and solutions. In July, Connecticut began making available online a real-time list of people held on bond in state correctional facilities, their charges and how long they’ve been held. State facilities are the state’s main incarceration point.

The Connecticut Data Collaborative, a public-private partnership, develops products and uses visualizations to “breathe life” into state data streams.

And in September, Kleykamp said Connecticut stood up a civic technology track at the third annual Stamford Hackathon, adding a small prize “to get some people thinking about civic tech.”

“We had done sort of these very civic-focused hackathons and it was sort of hard to draw people, but we found this was a pretty good approach for us,” Kleykamp said.

He said the state’s involvement yielded an unusual creation, one whose development has been encouraged: an app that combined transit schedules with IBM Bluemix and Watson Natural Language mix to help limited-English speakers navigate public transportation.

“I thought that was a really innovative thing. It’s one of those things that doesn’t necessarily cross your mind,” Kleykamp said.

Unlike Colorado, Connecticut has focused on making better use of the data it collects to streamline state business processes, including the licensing process through its Secretary of State’s office.

Most businesses need some type of state license, Kleykamp said. “I don’t know how many businesses would want to register with the Secretary of State using an iPhone versus sitting down in front of a computer to do that," he added. "But that’s certainly something we’d want to learn about.”

New Jersey is another state that sees a different role in tech than directly sponsoring hackathons, or incubator or accelerator events. Chief Technology Officer Dave Weinstein said officials think they can be more valuable working “on the data side.”

“Obviously, hackathons are extremely valuable venues for young developers to get together and compare notes and build new tools for our citizens and we certainly sponsor — or I should say, we certainly advocate — those types of events. But most of those events based on my observation form fairly organically across the state,” Weinstein said. “There’s not a lot of need for government to intervene."

Instead he pointed to the state’s Open Data Initiative (ODI), signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie on Monday, Feb. 6, as not only requiring data transparency from state agencies but potentially providing a road map forward.

Behind the scenes, officials have been “fairly active,” Weinstein said, pointing out there’s an Open Data Center in his office and a website providing transparency on issues ranging from geospatial to financial.

“But the Open Data Initiative really gives us an opportunity to further operationalize that center and certainly establish a lasting legacy in the Open Data space,” Weinstein said. “It’s also a great vehicle for marketing the Open Data Center to the developer community and others who didn’t even know we existed in this space.”

The ODI went further, however, codifying into law the state’s Chief Data Officer position, giving CDO Liz Rowe authority to set procedures, standards and practices pertaining to open data and data sets by agency; and to develop a format standard across all agencies.

That last piece is rather significant. New Jersey began an effort in 2015 to collect disparate pieces of online information from its state network, Weinstein said, but state data continues to exist in various formats, limiting its ability to be shared in an automated fashion.

Codifying the CDO’s role is also a key takeoff point from which to educate key stakeholders on data, he said, and bring them into the fold.

“In New Jersey, we’re happy to say that we can compel. We like to assert our authority when we have it,” Weinstein said.

Advocating — though not actually sponsoring — hackathon and coding events still generates value for the state, he said, by acquainting officials with local talent they may wish to recruit and hire.

And regardless of any of these events’ structures or ultimate design, Weinstein and other officials who spoke with Government Technology affirmed that hackathons, incubators and accelerators all have great purpose in the tech world.

“I think that because of the growth in programs like BigApps and Go Code Colorado and Code for America and even the White House’s 18F program … we’re experiencing the beginning of a renaissance in the way government views the opportunity to partner with the public on creating solutions to long-standing problems,” Rasiej said.

In Magda’s case, attending Go Code Colorado introduced him to technologists from around the state, and got him seen by his current employer, Airstream Health, which aims to build a good healthplan that’s cheaper for employers.

“Even though it’s hard to put a dollar amount on how successful it is," Magda said, "I think there’s a considerable benefit on my side being able to go to work for a startup."

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.