Passing the Torch

Code Across America takes place this weekend. On Saturday, Feb 23, the ATX Civic Hackathon III will happen in Austin, Texas. You can read about it here.

Last year, Austin was a Code for America partner city. We hosted three fabulous fellows (Aurelio Tinio, Joe Merante, and Emily Wright Moore). While they were here, the fellows organized the first two civic hackathons our city has seen. They were well attended and produced some great projects.

Then 2013 rolled around and the fellowship ended. If Austin was going to hold any more civic hacking events, it would be up to the community to organize them. Fortunately, our community rose to the challenge and organized the ATX Civic Hackathon III.

So, how’s it going? As a great philosopher once said, “Outlook good.” We’re seeing growing interest in the event. We’ve signed up some great sponsors, which means the hackers will be dining on sushi this year. We can’t know ahead of time what projects will be pitched and which selected, but I’ve seen some of the prep work and I’m very excited. I’m confident we’ll see some great results.

Lots of things are working in our favor. Other cities that are considering civic hack events — especially those cities participating in a Code for America fellowship this year — may want to take notes.

First, the handoff from fellows to the community was facilitated by having an organized community already in place. Open Austin was founded in 2009, around issues relating to the new city website. Since then we’ve been involved in advocating open government and open data issues. It was only natural to add civic hacking to our portfolio. If your city already has people organized around open government advocacy, great. If not, get organized now, before the end of the year. The Code for America Brigade program can provide resources and support.

Another item working in our favor is the positive publicity and relations created by the 2012 fellowship. Our city leaders saw the benefits of civic hacking and now are strong enthusiasts. We didn’t have to do a lot of selling at city hall. They were ready to support us. We’re in a great position for potential projects.

The 2012 hackathons helped fill the pipeline. At the first hackathon, my team wandered around the web searching for geospatial datasets, loaded them in Google Fusion Tables, and poked at them to find interesting things. It was highly undirected, but nonetheless ended up being productive. (At least three apps have emerged from that R&D excursion.) This weekend, the opposite may happen. It took a couple of events to get things going, but now we have a wealth of projects to choose from. So if you’re starting out, don’t fret too much about finding projects to pitch. Gather some people together and work out some open-ended issues. With time, good things will emerge.

I do have one regret about 2012. We never organized a transfer of information between the fellows and the community. We should have. I wish a “hackathon folder” was passed on, which I could open and use for event planning. Fortunately, the 2012 fellows are around and answering questions. Still, I’d urge people in 2013 fellowship cities to form their Brigade now — and insist on a debrief at the end of the fellowship. Best of luck to all the civic hackers this weekend. Watch for us on the nets. When we can take a break from hacking and eating sushi, we’ll be tweeting under #codeacross and #atxgo (“Austin, TX Government Online”).

Code Across America is a national weekend of civic innovation, happening February 22 – 24. Find out if there’s a Code Across event happening near you this weekend:

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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