IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Harvard Hackathon Targets Public Safety

Boston event aims to point some of the nation's best programing talent toward public-sector IT.

Government IT is poised for disruption. That’s the message that will be delivered at the Harvard Public Safety Innovation Hackathon starting on Nov. 2 at the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston. The two-day, free-to-attend hackathon will feature guest speakers, such as Edward Davis, former commissioner of the Boston Police Department, and Scott Greenwood, who served as general counsel to American Civil Liberties Union National.

Organized by Harvard alumnus Tony Huang, the event is an attempt to bridge the gap between IT and public safety by getting people talking about the possibilities of innovation in the public safety IT sector.

“We want to use this event as a launch pad to create a community of people,” Huang said. “We want to take the startup model that created companies like Google and Facebook and apply it to government IT and public safety in particular. We hope to see some really great dialog and some really great products and concepts come out of students from the Boston area.”

In addition to developing new concepts, some of the discussion topics covered during the hackathon will include mobile solutions, information management, consumerization of government IT, cross-agency communication, crime reporting, school safety and social media.

The smartest computer scientists coming out of great universities like Harvard end up working for private companies like Google, Huang said, but public safety, which doesn’t necessarily have a sexy image, isn’t seen as a good opportunity for innovation and change.

“Why can’t they build things that will actually help save lives or help make our communities safer?” he said. “My personal hunch is that now is the time where students really do want to engage with police agencies, with decision-makers and really learn about the problems so they can create products that really impact the community.”

Billions of dollars are spent each year on public safety technology, but there’s not enough IT talent in the public safety field to bring the sector up to the same level of technology that people now enjoy in their private lives, Huang said. Looking at the Boston Marathon bombings in April, and how the police department’s communication system couldn’t handle the peak in usage, demonstrated that public safety isn’t just behind in technology, he said, but it’s jeopardizing lives.

But this is going to change soon, he contends. “I think right now we’re hitting an inflection point with government technology,” he said, adding that the hackathon is the first step in building an ecosystem of public-sector IT transformation centered around the university.

“Eventually we want to be the hub for all startups in this space,” he said. “We want to mentor startups and we want to help get them running so they can really make impact.”

The Nov. 2 event in Boston will be the first in what Huang hopes will be a series of national and international hackathons focused on IT innovation for public safety. “We want to let people know the problem," he said, "and let people know there’s a community here."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.