Hacking the Hackathon for Civic and Social Good — a story of the ATX Hack For Change

Critics will tell you that hackathons can fail to realize sustainable outcomes beyond relationship and skills building. Often, the full landscape of problems aren’t clarified before a solution is developed. Those solutions may not have resources dedicated to supporting them after the hackathon. The narrow focus on technology and prototyping has limited the scope of projects to the exclusion of those that focus more on framing the challenge, such as through ethnography and design research.

Each year since the launch of the National Day of Civic Hacking in 2013, Austin’s organizers of the ATX Hack For Change (St. Edward’s University, Open Austin, and the City of Austin) have iterated the hackathon design. In its third year, the ATX Hack For Change continues its journey on June 5–7 to re-imagine hackathons as a platform for civic and social innovation. By creating the opportunity for the community to come forward with problems worth solving and matching those problems to volunteer hacker talents and skill sets, we better organize to create community-sourced solutions that solve for local issues.

This year, we honor the fact that getting projects to a hack-ready state is hard work. And we frame our efforts as “hacking it forward.” We’re working with broadest definition of hacking: to use one’s skills to alter, cope with successfully, refine or rewrite, re-use or re-purpose. For project champions, the hackathon represents an opportunity to make intensive, forward progress with the help of non-traditional problem-solvers.

To design for outcomes, we focus on human stories and solve for the human at the center of the problem. We don’t invest in technology for its own sake, but rather, what that technology can do to help a known problem. We identify projects coming into the hackathon by what creative problem-solving phase the project is in. We ask project champions whether they have:

a) Clarified the desired impact, user need, data required, or other important context? Volunteer teams need this information.

b) Framed the problem that needs solving? Have you unpacked that problem to make sure you won’t be thwarted by some hidden sticky problem that’s currently blocking you from making awesome happen already?

c) Generated ideas to that problem already, or do you need a fresh perspective to open up possibility?

d) Fleshed out an idea that is ready for prototyping? Do you need skills to bring that idea to reality?

Any of these phases are hack-worthy. It’s easier to scope projects for meaningful outcomes over a weekend when you know where you’re starting and where you hope to end up by the end of the event. We want project champions to think whether success look like having researched, designed, produced, or prepare to deploy a solution?

Hack (v. slang) to use one’s skills to alter, cope with successfully, refine or rewrite, re-use or re-purpose.

For the 2015 event, event co-sponsors invested the effort up front to help make project champions successful. Before the hackathon, we support project champions with these project phases, project pitching, and skills matching. Open Austin and City of Austin employees designed a Civic Tech Hack Canvas that they used to start framing projects in February. When it comes to pitching, we coach project champions to ensure that their project pitch is relevant and has appeal for hacker volunteers.

During the hackathon, we are building a tolerant timeline (all-nighters not required), feeding brains (skills sharing) and hearts (meaningful work), and focusing on collaboration (not competition). At the end of the hackathon, we have a panel of experts provide feedback on how to take their projects to the next level.

By designing hackathons sustainably, we enable diversity and inclusion and increase project success rates. From 2013 to 2014, the ATX Hack For Change participation rate doubled, almost half of the participants were women, and the percentage of projects that saw the weekend through rose from 38 percent to 67 percent. Let’s see what 2015 will bring!

Getting projects hack-ready and and building a supportive and inclusive environment for the hacker-volunteers takes partnership. In Austin, St. Edwards University, Open Austin, Texans for Economic Progress, and the City of Austin have aligned strategically to make it work logistically. We are supported by sponsors who bring resources, talent, experience, technology, materials, food, grit, moxie, savvy, mentorship, and inspiration.

As we hack the hackathon, we are learning — and sharing what we learn — as we go. We have a knowledge repository and playbook related to the ATXHack4Change. How is your City approaching the National Day of Civic Hacking? We invite you to share with us what worked for you.

What will you hack for good this weekend? Check out the 2015 ATX Hack For Change here: http://atxhackforchange.org/ and our Hackathon Projects here: https://austin.brightidea.com/ATXHack4Change2015.

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