Friday, April 10, 2015

What's A Civic Hackathon?

The original definition of a civic hackathon was 'writing computer code for an extended period of time to do interesting stuff with publicly available city data.'

Another source says civic hackathons are "events that spark civic engagement, bring together software designers, developers, and community organizers to solve their communities’ needs, and show what’s possible using technology."

The word hackathon is a portmanteau of hack and marathon, where hack means to elegantly accomplish a difficult task (often a computer programming task), and marathon is an extended or sustained activity.

Hackathons often last 24 to 54 hours, although they can be shorter and they've been known to run as long as a week. The general concept is to try and accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time. Coding hackathons sometimes have challenges or contests to see which person or team can write the best code during the hackathon.

In the early civic hackathons, programmers spent a day or two writing computer computer code that used publicly available city, county, state or federal data and organized that data in an interesting or useful way, especially some way that was helpful to general citizens affected by that data. Over time that definition is expanding to include a wider range of activities. For more background on the topic, see my earlier post, "What Is Civic Hacking??"

Civic hackathons are a relatively recent phenomenon and are more informal and inclusive than many of the college programming challenge hackathons which are only for coders and have strict rules and well-defined programming goals. The civic hackathons started out as events only for coders but have evolved in many cases to be an opportunity to improve many different topics in which our governments are involved. As a blog post from Code for America puts it:
"Over the past year, civic hackathon organizers have grown increasingly creative in how they structure these events, and increasingly deliberate in planning for the long-term impact from them. There are trends developing in how civic hackathons are being organized – new strategies that may point the way to what civic hacking events could look like in the months (or years) ahead. In essence, we’re seeing savvy event organizers hack the generally accepted idea of what a hackathon is thought to be...These aren’t your older brothers’ hackathons. The people organizing these events are all civic hacking veterans who have been to and/or organized other events in the past. They are using their experience in civic hacking and their passion for their communities to build a new breed of hackathon."
Civic hackathons are happening in communities around America and around the world. Many of them are planned to happen on the National Day of Civic Hacking, which for 2015 is on June 6. Other civic hackathons are held whenever organizers can gather together a group of interested civic hackers and arrange for a facility where the people can work together. The Dallas civic hackers held four civic hackathon events in 2014, and other cities have had more than one civic hacking event per year..

The bottom line about civic hackathons is that they can be pretty much whatever the people involved in the event want the hackathon to be, with the general goal of improving some government-affected aspect of citizens' lives. That evolution is known as hacking the hackathon...

Tomorrow's post will focus on the civic hackathon planned for June 6, 2015, in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA.


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