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How to Reap Millions in Cost Savings from a State-Sponsored Hackathon

Hawaii Gov. David Ige and state CIO Todd Nacapuy took an unusual approach and launched a monthlong hackathon, rather than a typical weekend warrior hackfest. The results? Millions of dollars and hundreds of hours saved.

Civic hackathons have been gaining steam in the past five years, but there is a connection between these government-sponsored, or quasi-government-sponsored, events and tangible results for public agencies.

In the case of the Aloha state, Hawaii CIO Todd Nacapuy says the Hawaii Annual Code Challenge (HACC) clearly has yielded tangible results, in the form of millions of dollars saved and hundreds of worker hours shaved.

Hawaii is reaping the benefits from taking the unusual approach of operating a monthlong hackathon, rather than a typical one-day or weekend hackfest, Nacapuy told Government Technology.

The financial benefits are a perk on top of the original purpose of the monthlong hackathon, which aims to generate citizen engagement and help Hawaii’s residents understand the challenges state governments face in resolving issues and innovating.

Since HACC launched in 2016, it has attracted 300 participants who range from professional IT workers to code crunchers to residents who lack technology skills. The monthlong event affords time for participants to receive a range of training from boosting their technology skills to learning how to pitch their ideas to raise capital, Nacapuy explained.

Hawaii Harvests Hackathon Innovation and Millions in Savings

Each state agency can submit a request to have their problem or challenge reviewed by HACC participants to design a solution. And although state agencies flood Nacapuy’s office with requests to participate in HACC, only a dozen or so of the agencies will have their problem reviewed once their proposals are vetted.

A number of state agencies have reaped substantial time savings or cost benefits with HACC ideas, which were either further developed by Nacapuy’s team or moved ahead to a proof of concept stage by the participants. In one case, the state wanted the website for the Hawaii Revised Statutes translated into eight different languages. Although the initial request for proposals resulted in estimates of over $6 million to develop such a website, Nacapuy said that figure was dramatically lowered to less than $900,000 after a HACC idea to use Google’s translator tools was incorporated into a reworked request for proposals. The translated versions of the Hawaii Revised Statutes are currently in production.

Although Nacapuy does not have a precise figure on the total amount of money the state has saved by using technology based on HACC projects, he said it’s in the millions.

Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture, for example, launched a new database and website for growers and producers in the state, based on technology developed by HACC participants. 

A Look at Time Savings from the Department of Ag’s New Database and Website

The Department of Agriculture’s market development branch upgraded its agriculture and food products directory with the HACC technology, saving the development branch 10 hours a week in having to find and connect local growers and producers with businesses and individuals who are seeking Hawaii-grown products and produce.

Anissa Estrella, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture’s market development branch, drilled down into the specifics of how the database and website are saving her branch time and money.

HACC Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in operating the HACC has come from figuring out what kind of awards to distribute to winners, Nacapuy said.

Some people want to be judged based on who has the best code, while others want it judged on who has the best idea, he explained. And some would prefer a gift card for the Amazon Web Services cloud while others want a laptop, he added. But by and large, “monetary prizes do not seem the best way to award people,” he said.

Awards for HACC winners may ultimately be as diverse as the reasons why contestants participate.

“Some do it because they want to use the technology to build a company and some want to participate for the greater good,” he said.