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A Hackathon for Everyone

By this point I’ve participated in quite a few hackathons, app competitions, coding days and data camps, and have even helped throw one. From the outset, the first installment in the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) Summer of Smart hackathon had a different feel. Billed as a “hackathon for everyone”, the fine folks at the GAFFTA proved their mettle by attracting a broad cross-section of civic-minded coders, artists and organizers, most of whom had never attended a hackathon before, and convinced them to devote the better part of their weekend to making. With SoS, they not only got the ingredients right, but definitely added their own panache.

I’ve witnessed the power of mixing people with diverse skillsets and experiences, and this was once again reinforced, both within my particular SoS team, and at the hackathon as a whole. Check out the projects, covered by GAFFTA:

  • Public Art Spaces – Facilitating open and found spaces for creative culture.
  • Public Art Mapper – Finding and cataloging San Francisco’s public art from the street.
  • Between the Stops – Exploring the hidden stories on San Francisco bus lines.
  • Get Volunteered – Making volunteering as simple as going to the movies.
  • The Post – Bridging the online and street community with a “Bulletin Board 3.0″ for democratized expression.
  • Yay Taxes! – Making taxpaying fun by visualizing connections between government finance and public services.
  • iArt San Francisco – Curating citizen-sourced personal tours of public art around the city.

Also, checkout what my teammates have already said (much of it better than I will).

One of the recurring questions about app contests and hackathons is to what extent they create sustainable civic projects. The Summer of Smart series seems to take this challenge head on: it offers as an award a shot at a GAFFTA residency, providing not prize money, but a space to work and pursue their projects in the fall.

As a Code for America fellow who gets support to be a civic hacker, obviously I love this idea. I do think it’s worth noting that not every project could or should turn into something more. But that’s not a problem. It’s important to recognize hackathons not only launch civic projects but also cultivate civic leaders. Hackathons are giddy affairs, rich with high spirits and the thrill of creativity; they give us the opportunity to invest ourselves outside of work for the joy of doing something that may look like work from the outside, but absolutely isn’t. This activity can act as a sort of public commitment to the value of getting our hands dirty to create the cities that we want to live in. Even though it’s unlikely that all of the projects will ultimately turn into larger ventures, the connections, sharing of ideas, and friendships that form as a result of these — the kind that I’ve seen firsthand in the weeks since GAFFTA — are the groundwork of a mutually supportive community. Which is better.

Addendum: For those of you who may not be confident coders, it’s worth noting that my role on the project was decidedly (and refreshingly) non-technical. Milicent and I ran the neighborhoods along the 24 bus line from Japantown to Bayview, gathering short video clips of people talking about the neighborhoods along it. Let this serve as an invitation to those without technical chops: you are needed too.

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Brian Gryth


Thanks for the information. The issue of sustainable civic hacks is so over looked. GAFFTA is taking one approach. At some point, it would be great to see civic hacking incubator, like Techstars or Y Combinator. An operation that provides seed funding, work space, and business advising support. The opportunity to pitch to investors or grant writing assistance could also be included. It seem like this would be a tremendous opportunity for civic mind investment and for civic hacker to build businesses that support our communities.

In any case, it is nice to see people and organization supporting sustainable civic hacking. An thank you for being a Code for America fellow.

Cheers, Brian