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6 Traits of Productive Hackathons

Civic tech competitions require much more than putting a bunch of developers in a room and letting them go to work.

When people think of hackathons, they likely imagine a dimly lit room full of young coders armed with energy drinks and high-powered laptops frantically writing lines of code. However, government hackathons and tech competitions, when done right, require much more than putting a bunch of developers in a room and letting them go to work.

When I was deputy mayor of New York City, I attended the NYC BigApps competition, an annual civic innovation challenge that invites developers, designers, academics and others to design solutions that benefit the city. The contest’s early years produced energy, excitement and some interesting, but not frequently transformative apps. Based on this experience, I have six suggestions for rolling out an engaging and productive civic tech competition.

Define a clear focus area that meets citizens’ needs. At the first BigApps competition in 2009, NYC released data and told developers to run with it, giving little direction. The result was some neat tools, but few products to benefit residents long term.

In 2016, BigApps co-creators the New York City Economic Development Corp. and tech nonprofit Civic Hall Labs reframed the competition, reaching out to corporate and community partners to define a set of challenge areas to address the problems that residents wanted fixed. “We wanted New Yorkers to have their voices heard in a way they hadn’t been before,” said Elizabeth Stewart, founding executive director of Civic Hall Labs. The result was communitywide engagement with more than 30 partner organizations and 500 New Yorkers, and an emphasis on design thinking and usability testing throughout the competition.

Engage with the civic tech community to attract talent. Bringing talented innovators to a hackathon requires using your city’s existing tech network and creating new connections by reaching out to civic tech groups, visiting meetups and posting on popular forums like Hacker News or Reddit. Advertising your hackathon on college events pages or posting flyers around campuses can also boost your talent pool.

Make sure your participants aren’t all coders. It’s important to involve non-coders, especially stakeholders, to ensure that products address civic priorities and are accessible to less tech-savvy residents. Collaboration between developers and stakeholders also promotes understanding between builders and users of tools for government, improving opportunities for future co-production.

Make the resulting products open source. By making code, development processes or results public, participants let other cities replicate their products. As a part of its Analyze Boston Open Data Challenge, the city required creators to share their products to increase their reach.

Support apps after the competition. In many cases, participants in these competitions lack the funding, business-savvy and community connections to cultivate a lasting audience on their own. A lack of support was a major flaw in early iterations of the BigApps competition, which saw many winning products sputter shortly after the contest.

This year, BigApps sought to provide more support for participants in order to create lasting products. In addition to a monetary prize, BigApps offers winners admission to a six-month, part-time accelerator program at Civic Hall Labs as well as business and legal support. “The accelerator will help winners establish a proof of concept and explore viable business models to attract seed capital down the road,” Stewart said.

Use them as a recruiting tool. Hackathons are useful for producing solutions to civic problems and also can show talented individuals that your city provides an innovative work environment. Tech competitions signal creative work practices, show off tech-savvy offices and highlight important work done in the civic tech space.

When designed with such considerations, competitions can produce lasting tools to improve residents’ lives in many cities. Organizers should look to cities like New York that have experienced the growing pains of starting a civic tech competition and learn from their mistakes and successes.

Chris Bousquet, a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed to this column.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.