Atlantic Cities

Are Civic Hackathons Stupid?

Are Civic Hackathons Stupid?
Flickr/Andrew Eland

No idea ever gets too popular without a bit of a backlash. And now this is happening to the once-obscure civic hackathon. Just a few years ago, such app-developing marathons were rare, and the idea behind them sounded even stranger: Who would willingly give up a weekend to code municipal data for free? As it turns out, lots of people. And lots of governments, from City Hall to the White House, have embraced the model as a way to connect to a younger generation of residents, and to leverage their (free) tech skills.

We've heard the argument before that hackathons aren't all they're cracked up to be, even that they're downright bad for you. Last year, Jake Levitas, the research director at the San Francisco-based Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, joked with us about their sudden ubiquity as a problem-solver: "We’re hearing from the mayor’s office like, ‘a cat got stuck in a tree, can we have a hackathon to get it down?'"

Now the critique, in particularly blunt language, is coming from the former chief technology officer of the tech-friendly city of Seattle. Bill Schrier writes on his personal blog this week that hackathons and the like were "kinda cool" when they were new in 2008.

But now apps contests are not just overdone – there are just so many of them – but actually are becoming counterproductive, turning off developers and governments. In fact, they are stupid.

Schrier argues, in short, that most local apps developed in hackathons and contests are unsustainable because they can't be be monetized or scaled up to other cities. The two problems, as Schrier points out, are closely related. We've written a lot lately about the need for cities to standardize their data so that enterprising developers and companies can build national tools instead of a million incompatible but similar ones in different cities.

Without standardized data, a great app built in one city won't function anywhere else. But more importantly – and this is Schrier's most compelling point – no one will make real money off of this stuff until "data is standardized so a single app – a crime reporting app, for example – can be downloaded and used across an entire state or the nation with the potential for millions of users."

Apps developers need to eat, too, and put a roof over their heads and a Porsche in their garage.  They’re all looking to create that “killer app”  which will be downloaded a million times at a $9.99 per download.

But how many apps created from hackathons or apps challenges or contests are monetized?   How many of them are still active and downloaded and used?

My answer:  few, very few.

I'm not sold on the sweeping indictment that all hackathons and app contests are a waste of time, because not all problems tackled by them are national. And certainly not all tools developed during these events aspire to profit. Some problems – navigating enrollment in a school district, or trying to track a blighted property next door – demand a local app, not something created five states away. Hackathons and contests also have value as processes, not simply for their products. They bring officials and residents together in a context that has nothing to do with paying parking tickets or reporting potholes, and in a format that appeals to people who would never turn up for a public meeting.

The underlying question about sustainability, however, is a good one, because the developers who spend their free time creating these tools often don't have the resources to keep them alive indefinitely. I don't have the answer to that. But I wouldn't write off all app events – of the thoughtful kind, not the cat-in-a-tree kind – while we figure that out.

Top image: Flickr/Andrew Eland

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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