Government Hackathons: Five Steps to Success

Computer worker falling asleep on their desk.
Hackathons are hard but rewarding work.

Friendly competition can bring out the best of us, and when developing government innovation, hackathons can help solve certain challenges through crowdsourced innovation and build engagement across your constituency. 

So how does it work, and how can you hold an effective government hackathon?

Set Up Resources

A good hackathon gives everyone who takes part in what they need to succeed. Take an inventory of what resources you can provide, whether it’s data, access to public servants, engaged audiences who want to test the apps created by the hackathon, or other materials like legal documentation or regulatory guidance. Also, make sure that you can provide them to every team so that everyone is on an equal footing and aiming for the same goal.

Moreover, be sure to set specific rules on resources teams can bring to the competition. No team should be using proprietary data or code, for example. Make sure the rules are clear, evenly applied, and have no loopholes that some teams might use to coast through. 

Have A Clear Goal

While it can be tempting to put out an aspirational goal and let citizens have at it, the best innovation has a clear goal that addresses a specific need. Look through the feedback you’ve gathered, and solicit more, to determine a need that’s pressing, possible to engineer for in terms of the resources you can provide, and will be useful for its target audience. A hackathon for a tool for use on specific data sets can be just as useful as a broadly focused app for every citizen.

Choose An Audience

While some competitions should be open to anyone, others should have a more targeted audience. Consider local tech companies, university students, or another team with the specific skill sets you’re looking for. For example, if you’re looking for solutions for your water system data, invite local engineering firms and university teams to the hackathon.

Computer programmer working at his laptop.
Think beyond the nerds.

Your audience should also be more than just code experts. Coding has become a skill in demand across a huge number of industries, so “coder” is less and less a job itself and more a role contained within broader jobs. Tap into the broader community, and work with local coding enthusiast groups and educational organizations. This also ensures a fairer competition. If a team has a dozen PhDs and are up against a group of high schoolers, that’s going to be a challenge to manage fairly.

Offer Rewards 

Hackathons for the civic good can certainly be effective, and in some cases, the reward will be the publicity the team receives for engaging with the work. In others, though, there should some sort of reward beyond the sense of a job well done. This can be anything from a charitable donation to a scholarship, but offering a reward will both draw in more teams and give more urgency to the hackathon.

Have A Support Plan

Once the task is complete and a solution is chosen, who will maintain and update it? When operating systems are upgraded, who will make sure the app is still compatible? Who’s maintaining the data the app uses to function? These are all questions you should have answers to, before the hackathon starts. The results of hackathons are never set-it-and-forget-it solutions, but tools that must be maintained and upgraded to remain effective for your constituents.

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