Alameda County, Calif., Sets High Standards for Hackathons

The county has received national recognition for its innovative open data initiatives that have benefited the community while reducing costs.

by / October 1, 2014
The Berkeley, Calif., Unified School District participated in the 2013 Alameda County Apps Challenge. Flickr/Berkeley Unified School District

In early September, Alameda County, Calif., held its fifth hackathon, and is now sifting through more than a dozen ideas -- many of which will morph into projects over the next year. Sure, the event is one day, but for Alameda hackathons are a way of life. 

"We're very lucky to be in an environment like this that gives us a chance to take risks and do something different," said Alameda County CIO Tim Dupuis. 

At the wrap-up meeting for the hackathon, county staff reflected that hackathons have changed Alameda's culture, making it feel Google-like, with more free-thinking around process improvements, according to Dupuis.

Dupuis, who leads the county's open data initiative, puts on the events with his own team, and sees the hackathons as another way for the information technology department to proactively perform outreach, marketing and education, which are natural roles for IT staff. 

"This is a new way for us to go out and learn how we can use technology to improve the service we deliver as a county," he said.   

The recent hackathon -- an internal event called Rethink AC -- had 125 county employees start with 30 ideas, culminating in 13 teams presenting proposals and competing for five awards. A number of ideas included bringing apps or functions together in one place, similar to an idea for creating one portal for county contracts. Other projects from previous events have included an invoice-processing app that saves the county around $500,000 per year and an electronic vendor payment app to be implemented next year. 

Alameda has learned there are other benefits from internal and external hackathon events, including an engaged work place and community, and opportunities for participants to collaborate with new people, work together and build relationships. 

Opening Up

Alameda's hackathons began as a natural evolution of the county's open data initiative. In 2011, the county board of supervisors and County Administrator Susan Muranishi challenged Tim Dupuis and his information technology department team to make raw and intelligent data available to the community.

The county created a committee made from department decision makers to discuss opening up all public data and then partnered with Socrata, the open data platform company, to create a cloud-based, open data portal that launched in 2012 starting with 100 data sets, and now has more than 140. 

Socrata's technology manages the flow of data on the open data portal, and its application programming interfaces give programmers flexibility to integrate the data and use it in powerful ways, said Safouen Rabah, vice president of product for Socrata.

Costs vs. Savings

Since its first external hackathon in 2012, Alameda County has had two more external hackathons or Apps Challenges and two internal hackathons or Rethink AC events. One of each is now held annually. County staff work hard putting on each event, including coordinating the logistics, that Dupuis estimates can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000, which includes all the marketing, venue, prizes and food, though sponsors offset a lot of that, he said.    

Winning ideas offset the cost too. During Alameda's first internal hackathon in 2013, employees proposed an automated-invoicing app that reduces storage, paper, scanning and other costs, saving the county about $500,000 per year. The app, which was rolled out in April, also saves money by decreasing invoice-verification time by 80 percent. 

Another app created by high-school-age interns who participated in the first external hackathon saved the county $65,000 because no developer had to be hired, according to Socrata. 

Alameda County was an early open data innovator in government, embracing many of the aspects of the movement, Rabah said. "Their open data project is really one of the most innovative projects out there," he said.

It's interesting to ponder why organizations are choosing to make their information more accessible, said Rabah. Though it can appear that opening data up is done just because it's the right thing to do, there are key motivators, he explained, including serving as a catalyst for government, with the help of citizens, to innovate and improve how things are done.  

"Increasingly one of the main consumers of that data are government employees themselves, he said.

Government Hackers

Once the site was up, Alameda needed promote its open data. Taking a tip from private organizations, the county began to create its own hackathon events, starting with an external hackathon, or Apps Challenge. 

After visiting other events, many of which were multi-day, the county settled on its own style: a one-day event structure. "It builds up a lot of energy," Dupuis said. "We get a lot done in that one day, and we've been very, very happy with the result." 

The entire scope of the projects, though, takes more than one day. Alameda extends its hackathons beyond the event day by reaching out to the community and investing in the development of ideas. "There's a whole system here, it's not just the one day. The networking and community outreach and the building of relationships with the community continue on," Dupuis said. 

For example, IT staff visit high school classrooms, technology hubs and coder havens to drum up participation and interest in the external hackathons, since these events move to different districts, and each reaches an  entirely new crowd. The outreach has paid off, however. The first Apps Challenge attracted 120 people and the third, and most recent, attracted 170 participants. 

And even the internal events are communicated widely by committee representatives, with posters using catch-phrases like "say no to the status quo," and through the county's internal newsletter.

This is what makes Alameda so special and successful, according to Rabah. "What they are absolute leaders on is the developer engagement aspect of open data," he said. "They have sustained a very engaging relationship with developers that spans both the physical and digital world." 

Killer Hackathons  

Alameda laid the groundwork before its first hackathon in 2012 by connecting directly with the surrounding tech community and with a range of people. And each event is different: 50 percent of Alameda's latest Apps Challenge participants were high school age or younger.   

"One of the things that's been very successful for us is just putting that effort into the outreach up front," Dupuis said. "We hit it from several angles -- we use social media, we use all the contacts we have, but, more importantly, we're willing to go out and send people to events."

The county looks to bring to each hackathon a mixture of talents. Alameda learned from watching privately run hackathons that it needs more than just the hard-core coder types; the person with a vision is necessary too.

With its internal or Rethink AC events, Alameda emphasizes friendly competition, the importance of the idea and for all kinds of people to participate, including those with strong presentation, collaboration and participation skills. The resulting "killer ideas," as Dupuis calls them, can provide catalysts for change.

"You don't just have to be a coder to participate and make a difference through the use of the data. We want those ideas out there so that we can hear them and so that we can get them in front of the decision-makers," Dupuis said. 

After each hackathon, even the ideas that don't win prizes can win over county leaders who have the opportunity to promote them, helping promising projects to get off of the ground. 

The county is now taking its successful hackathon format and applying it to other events, and has introduced condensed, two-hour hackathons to the county's leadership academies for adults and youth. Just like the longer events, participants compete and make three-minute creative presentations of their technology ideas.  

Alameda has received recognition regarding its open data initiative from the California State Association of Counties, the Center for Digital Government, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the National Association of Counties. In an article by Socrata, the company called Alameda the gold standard for making an open data initiative "phenomenally effective in a very short amount of time."

Dupuis said that from the standpoint of encouraging team-building, motivation and communication, and as a way to get people to go outside of traditional roles, he can't see any organization that wouldn't benefit from hackathons.

But he wasn't always so confident. At the beginning, there was skepticism that the community would even take interest in the hackathons. "It was more of an all right, let's start this journey and see what's going to happen," Dupuis said.

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.