Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bolder, Brighter, Better: The Next NE Wisc Civic Hackathon

Question:  How can we make the next NE Wisconsin civic hackathon better??

Answer:  By learning from our first regional civic hackathon and from similar recent events.

tl;dr -- Long-winded notes to myself about lessons from the region's first civic hackathon and points to focus on when organizing and holding the next civic hackathon in NE Wisconsin.

Today’s post will present my thoughts about what we should do differently on the next DHMN Civic Hackathon in NE Wisconsin. These opinions are based on how the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 on June 6 was organized and what happened during the event.

Next week I’ll write a post about what we should or might consider doing differently based on what other groups did during their National Day of Civic Hacking 2015 (NDoCH) activities.

The recommendations below will seem like good ideas to just about everyone interested in a civic hackathon, or pretty much any unconference or other participant-driven event. The reason some of them may not (won't?) get done is due to lack of people with the time, level of passion and skills needed to accomplish them. The only item that potentially involves a significant amount of money is the venue. All the other recommendations can be accomplished if the right people see value in organizing and putting on a highly worthwhile civic hackathon.


Venue & Agenda:  Secure venue and agree on agenda no later than two months before the event so publicity and marketing can start early.

Warch Campus Center, Lawrence University
Securing a venue is often a major challenge for participant-driven events. But effective marketing and event planning is highly dependent on getting early and firm written commitment for the venue.

Securing a venue becomes easier over time for both event organizers and for emerging communities. After event planners investigate and schedule venues for three or four similar events, they know the questions to ask, they learn what venues are in an area, and they have a better idea of the maximum number of participants they should plan for.

After a new type of event has been held three or four times in a region, there is more credibility and legitimacy for that type of event. There are past events that can be referenced, there are online records of the event that can be linked to, there should be media reports, as well as video and photos of the event captured by event participants and organizers. This all makes it easier for a potential in-kind venue sponsor to see value in hosting the civic hackathon in their facility.


Publicity / Marketing:  Recruit two interested and capable people for marketing manager and for social media coordinator before starting serious planning effort.

Creating effective publicity and marketing is difficult, but it’s essential to achieve maximum success for many civic hackathons. Good publicity and marketing with make it much easier to recruit participants, partners and sponsors.

I’ve enjoyed every barcamp, unconference, and participant-driven event I’ve helped plan and been part of over the past ten years. And every one of them could have had much more effective publicity and marketing. For every event, I’ve had people tell me shortly before the event that they’d have participated if they’d known about it sooner, and I’ve registered people on the day of the event who told me they just heard about it that day or the night before. I’ve also talked with people after each event who didn’t know the event had taken place, were very curious about what it was like and wanted me to let them know when the next similar event was going to be held.

So I’ll continue to try to get PR and marketing people involved and work to get better publicity and marketing for those events I’m involved in.


Written Goals & Ground Rules:  Early in the event organizing process, civic hackathon cofounders develop written goals and ground rules for the hackathon.

Developing and agreeing on goals and ground rules ensures that everyone is pulling together and working toward the same outcome. If there are not well-communicated and mutually-acceptable common goals and standards for how things will be done, it will lead to a less successful civic hackathon. After the core organizing team has a set of written goals and ground rules, it creates clear expectations so other people and organizations will be better informed when they decide whether they want to get on board and be involved with the event.

A simple example of this is specifying whether all civic hacks that are worked on during the event will be released as open source. Some people feel strongly that they only want to work on open source civic hacks, while others only want to spend their day hacking if they can develop a proprietary app to sell on the Apple App Store. Neither approach is wrong or bad. There just need to be clear expectations so people are well-informed before they commit to the event.

Another example is getting agreement on what event sponsors and partners get in exchange for their support of the civic hackathon. Some hackathon participants a major sponsor presence and visibility throughout the event, while other participants and planners prefer sponsors have more subtle involvement and be seen as an enabler for the hackathon rather than a key focus of the event.


Seed Projects:  Work with five enthusiastic civic hackers before the event to get beta of five civic hacks started before event which they’ll work on during the event.

Because civic hacking is an emerging trend, many civic hackathon participants will have no specific project in mind to work on, and will be open to working on a variety of teams. It’s ok for people to choose from a huge spectrum of civic hack projects that haven’t had any local prep work done on them prior to the hackathon. But it can be very helpful to have a few seed civic hacks on which a project leader who will participate in the hackathon has already done some work.

Two items led to this goal for the next civic hackathon. First, I was told that about half the civic hackers in the code-focused group had some idea of what they wanted to work on during the event. The other half seemed to have no strong preference for what they worked on, they just wanted several projects to choose from which already had a project lead person.

Secondly, it was great to observe and hear about the ecosystem that developed around Mike Putnam’s AppletonAPI and “Is It Recycling Week?” hacks. By the end of the day, six or eight other civic hackers were working with Mike or on ideas related to his hacks. If we have 80 participants in the next civic hackathon instead of 40, it would be awesome if we had five ‘seed’ civic hacks already in progress, like Mike’s, so that we have more fun collaboration like we saw around his two related projects.

For seed projects, recruit event participants from demographic affected by projects -- build with affected residents, not for them. Working on civic hacks with this approach should have two benefits. One is that the hacks will be better designed if affected residents are involved in the design. The other benefit is that residents involved in creating and refining a hack are more likely to use the hack and to encourage others to use it.


Participant Recruitment:  Work with enthusiastic demographic-specific representatives to lead recruitment of participants for their demographic sector.

Lead participant recruiters should contact well-connected people in their demographic sector to ensure as many NE Wisconsin people as possible in target demographic sectors are aware of the civic hacking event. Reasons for people not participating should be because of schedule conflicts or lack of interest, not because they didn’t know about event.

Primary demographic sectors are (1) youth, (2) women, (3) coders, (4) designers, (5) GIS, (6) city / county government, (7) Hispanic, (8) Hmong, (9) Native American, (10) Non-Hmong Asian, (11) African-American, (12) Multi-lingual, (13) Disabled / Handicapped. Adjust recruiting priority of above demographics based on expected key contributions during the hackathon (e.g. hack design, coding, user experience and user validation) and population density in both the community hosting the hackathon and in NE Wisconsin.

Even if we have a strong publicity and marketing effort for the next civic hackathon, we will still get maximum participation from a wide variety of demographic sectors if there are personal invitations from hackathon organizers who are members of those demographic sectors.

If we have young people and youth leaders personally inviting other young people to participate, we will have more young participants. If we have a woman taking the lead to recruit other women participants, we’ll have more women civic hackers than if it’s just men inviting them. Coders know more developers than non-coders do, and the coders know what organizations to reach out to for publicizing and promoting the hackathon. And if we have a Hmong recruiter personally inviting other Hmong civic hackers, we’ll have lots more Hmong participants than we otherwise would.


Partner And Sponsor Recruiters:  Identify one lead recruiter for event partners and one lead recruiter for event sponsors.

Sponsors for our civic hackathons are currently defined as people and organizations whose primary involvement is helping make the event successful by providing in-kind or financial contributions. The most common in-kind sponsors are a venue sponsor, food and beverage sponsors, office supply sponsors and participant swag sponsors. Financial sponsors are divided into primary sponsors ($500 or more) and community sponsors ($50 to $499).

Some civic hackathons may have competitions or challenges with prizes. Competition sponsors contribute $100 or more and participate actively on the competition planning team. All competitions or challenges with prizes will be transparent and designed to surface good ideas, promote collaboration and generate community benefit rather than a focus on personal financial benefit that leads to ‘gaming’ the competition or challenge.

Partners are currently defined as people and organizations whose primary involvement is helping make the event successful by officially endorsing the hackathon and enabling hackathon participation by at least two seasoned coders or knowledgeable civic hackers who are not coders. ‘Enabling’ can mean they recruit participants from their own organization and elsewhere in NE Wisconsin, or they make it financially possible for civic hackers from outside NE Wisconsin to participate in the hackathon.

The above dollar amounts and definitions for sponsors and participants will be defined and agreed on be the organizers of each event -- these are just my recommendations.


Prep Work With City & County:  Civic hackers work with people at the city and county before the event to identify useful data and make easily available for the hackathon.

Part of this should be to make sure the seed projects have plenty of data / info. By starting work on a civic hack, the team or the project lead will learn what data or information they'll need during the hackathon. They can work with the city or county, or other appropriate government agencies, to identify the source of the needed information and arrange for the data to be available for hackathon participants.

Another part of prep work with the city / county could be to obtain digital files of useful publicly-available data that might not be easily discoverable or accessible online. Part of the June 6 hackathon was spent researching and asking various people what government info is publicly available. We need to spend a few hours before the event digging up public data that has limited circulation or visibility and putting that info or links to it in a central online location. This will make the limited hours of the hackathon much more productive for the participants.


Intentional Relationship Building:  Have more action items during the event to intentionally connect and build relationships between participants.

Although strong promotional emphasis is placed on the wonderful and amazing civic hacks that will be developed during an event like this, the reality is that much of the work done during a hackathon will fade away and not be followed up on after the hackathon. There is only so much that can be accomplished in half a day, in one day or in a weekend. This doesn’t mean the hackathon is not worthwhile. It just means that the civic hacks that are created during the event aren’t the only goal of a hackathon, and they might not even be the most important benefit of holding the event.

A huge goal of civic hackathons and of other participant-driven events is the new relationships people make during the events. There are many amazing stories of what two people or a group of people have done together after they first met at an unconference or civic hackathon. Some of their interesting accomplishments are directly related to the topic of the event, and some of them are only slightly connected to the event that first introduced the people to each other.

For this reason, the next NE Wisconsin civic hackathon should have more intentional relationship building. Some new relationships will form at an event simply because of serendipity or because one or more people involved deliberately sought to form the relationship. But more worthwhile connections will be made if the hackathon has activities and opportunities which intentionally connect like-minded or complementary-minded people who’ve never met before.


Videos & Photos:  Have designated media people for the event to plan photos and videos before the event and spend at least 25% of their time shooting photos and video.

Event videos and photos have many benefits and purposes and should be a priority action item for every civic hackathon or participant-driven event. Capturing the highlights of the event, the enjoyment and intense expressions of participants, the special details of a venue, the preparations for an event and cleanup afterwards, and the visual and audio documentation of the takeaways from the event will be appreciated by the participants, partners, sponsors and organizers of the hackathon. A few specific benefits or uses of impactful video and photos are:

  • Marketing material for future similar events.
  • Reinforces good memories for participants.
  • Encourages increased future participation.
  • Provides visual content for post-event reports and blog posts.
  • Creates an accurate record of the hackathon.
  • Builds credibility and legitimacy for the event.
  • Strengthens connections between participants.
  • Documents effective use of sponsor contributions.
  • Highlights key or unique participants.


Improved Parking, Transportation And Communication:  Host event in a venue with free or low-cost parking near the venue, good access to public transportation and communicate parking clearly.

Dealing with parking and access to the event venue should not be a major time-consumer for event planners or participants. But it is something that every single person coming to the event will want to know about. Convenient free or reasonable-cost parking and access and clear communications about those topics will make life easier for everyone, especially for people who have never been to the venue before. If the venue is in a downtown area, consider providing special parking options, event shuttle transportation, or other arrangements that make it convenient for people to get to the hackathon venue. Here are a few points to consider regarding this:

  • Have convenient designated handicapped parking.
  • Describe parking options and restrictions near venue.
  • Try to get a venue with plenty of free nearby parking.
  • Try to get a venue near public transportation stops.
  • Identify drop-off point for people and large or heavy items.
  • Publish helpful maps on the event website; include written directions and links.


Registration Details:  Agree on registration details and any info registrants will be asked for before allowing people to start registering.

Location, agenda and event t-shirt info was changed on Eventbrite after the registration was opened. This caused extra communication with registrants and probably some confusion. Minimize the need for registrant communication and confusion by getting agreement to all details related to venue, agenda, event shirts, etc. Last minute changes are sometimes unavoidable. But make sure the basics of the event that should be communicated to the registrant, as well as information that needs to be gotten from the registrant, are identified and agreed to in writing before the hackathon registration page is set up and made available for online registration.


Pre-Hackathon Meetup:  Schedule and promote a pre-hackathon meetup that will be held two to four weeks before the hackathon.

A pre-hackathon meetup for participants has great value and should take place. A couple of the benefits are:

  • New civic hackers can learn more about civic hacking without the hackathon time pressures.
  • Participants can figure out what data or information they'll need during the hackathon.
  • People can learn skills to use during the upcoming hackathon, such as open source map editing, basic python programming, how to scrape data from the web,

But...there are challenges involved with holding a participant meetup before the main event. Some participants are enthusiastic about the hackathon and willing to make room in their busy schedule for that one event. They may not be willing or able to add a prep event to their schedule. The hackathon organizers also have limited time and bandwidth for doing a pre-event meetup. It will be just one more thing for them to take care of when they probably already have a few items they're behind on for the main event. Finally, putting on a pre-hackathon meetup requires a venue, people to facilitate the event or provide training, and arrangements for whatever supplies and equipment are needed to hold a worthwhile meetup.

In spite of all those challenges, I still plan to offer and promote a pre-hackathon meetup for people who are interested and can participate before the next NE Wisconsin civic hackathon. It's worth the extra hassle.


Sponsors Confirm Commitments:  Work with sponsors to confirm commitments via email or letter; clarifies expectations, prevents misunderstandings and ensures follow-through.

Sponsors are critical to the success of a hackathon. As a matter of fact, most hackathons wouldn't happen if it weren't for sponsors. Even if it's a bare-bones, informal unconference-style event, a hackathon with more than five or ten people needs to have a suitable venue with Internet access and niceties like bathrooms. If the event organizers want to maximize interest in the hackathon and make it fun and worthwhile for the participants, they'll probably also want to provide meals, snacks, beverages, supplies, and maybe even swag such as t-shirts or beverage containers.

All these things that sponsors make possible will be mentioned and promoted in the hackathon publicity and marketing materials. Participants will make arrangements based on sponsor-enabled details and will have expectations created by their understand of what the hackathon will be like. Some of the details may be the specific reason people decide it's worth their time to participate in the event.

So the last thing organizers need to have happen is to think a sponsor will provide a specific type or amount of support, only to find out shortly before or during the hackathon that the sponsor is not actually providing the expected support. Sometimes it's just a communication problem or a lack of agreed expectations, but other times, a sponsor may change their mind or not view the withdrawal of sponsorship as a significant issue. By creating written documentation of what a sponsor is providing, confirming the commitment in writing, and by having reasonable and timely arrangements for the sponsor to deliver their agreed support, many sponsorship-related issues can be avoided.

The sponsorship commitment shouldn't be a major point of discussion with potential sponsors, and it should turn into a hassle that makes them regret agreeing to be a sponsor. But it is important enough that it should be followed up on with everyone who agrees to be a sponsor.


The June 6 DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 was successful, and all the people I talked to seemed to have enjoyed the time they spent at the event. But there were at least 29 cool civic hacks I wished we’d had people to work on. And I talked to or heard about a bunch of great potential civic hackers who said during the last two weeks before the event, “I would have put that on my schedule if I’d heard about it earlier.”

Forty people is a reasonable participation level for a NE Wisconsin civic hackathon if most of the people who might be interested heard about didn’t show up because of schedule conflicts or lack of interest. But when 50 or 100 people didn’t participate in the hackathon simply because they never heard about it, we need to do a better job of getting the word out.

Being an engineer who is often focused on doing things well and looking for ways to improve stuff, I want the next civic hackathon in NE Wisconsin to be BETTER. And I’ll always want the one after that to be even MORE successful…

The above items are a few ways for future civic hackathons to be much better!

[Wow -- that was much longer than anticipated...]


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