Narrowly defined, hackathons invite a bunch of well-intentioned technologists to sit among themselves for a day to address our most intractable civic challenges. Only this year did critiques of this flawed model finally gain traction from the likes of the Atlantic Cities and MIT Media Lab, among others. So what lasting good could a one-day civic technology event reasonably accomplish?
Current State of Civic Hacking
I wasn’t planning to write this post until I received the following email. Oakland has had its fair share of civic hacking (I participated in the first Code for Oakland in 2011), and this tool is fairly representative: Adopt a Drain.
What this says to me: “Your government is so hopelessly cash-strapped that it’s using potentially powerful technical resources to delegate even the most minor government duties to private residents. Sure, only some residents will have the resources to 1) access this tool or 2) contribute time and energy to these tasks, so we leave you to wonder how the benefits of this tool will be distributed across the community that we are legally obligated to serve equitably. But hey, isn’t this cool!”
I could go on about the problems with this model forever.
- Privatizes access to civic resources/services that should be public
- Limits audience and participants to those already adept at technical tools
- Arrogantly advances the idea that civic challenges are “fixable”, if only we had more 20/30-something, urban, upper/middle-class, college-educated, bearded, white males working at it
But I’d rather figure out a useful interaction for government and technology.
One-Day Events as an Effective Organizing Tool
The appeal of the one-day hackathon event is clear. You bring your laptop, get some coffee, sit around with like-minded people, and build something you can feel proud of. But if you’re only bringing together like-minded people, what are you really accomplishing? Why not bring together people who don’t know how much they have in common just yet?
An anecdote: I grew up in a small town. How small? When I was 14, I was offered a job in a real estate office, because my second grade teacher’s husband remembered I was “good with computers”. Now I have a masters in city planning and contract similar-ish work in Oakland. It’s clear this connection 14 years ago made a positive impact on my life and career.
But what do people in small towns do when they need technical help, something as simple as a website, but don’t know who to ask? They either go without, or hire someone from a nearby city like Atlanta and pay more for the privilege to do so. In communities that sprawled heavily in the 1990s/2000s, the massive wave of new residents often have difficulty accessing information their homesteading neighbors take for granted. If only urban farm stands show up in a Google search, where will those new suburban residents turn?
And these rural businesses get that. Now, over a decade later, I still get offers (through my parents that live there) to build websites. I moved away in 2003. The people I speak with genuinely don’t know anyone else locally, and inevitably turn to Atlanta. There’s an opportunity being missed here to find the next generation of people “good with computers” and turn them into awesomely talented web developers. These technically-challenged rural/suburban small business-owners would be surprised to see how much savvy lives in the halls of their local high schools and colleges.
We already encourage people to “Shop Local” and “Buy Local”. Why not “Code Local”?
Upload Newton adapts the one-day hackathon model to connect small businesses with web developers in their community.
The premise is simple:
- Local businesses sponsor a challenge. They contribute text, graphics, and guidelines for how they want their website to look.
- Local web developers register, and select a specific categorical challenge: simple webpage, complex webpage, logo design, etc.
- On the day of the event, participating developers get their challenge materials and have eight hours to put it all together.
- Top entries are presented at a reception that evening, and prizes are awarded by sponsors.
- Businesses and developers mingle at a networking reception
- All entries and their creators’ contact information are hosted online, as a resource for future entrepreneurs.