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Hacking towards a solution – 7 elements of a successful gov hackathon

The Digital Government Strategy, the Open Data Directive, the Open Data policy and the Open Data Partnership agreement are all pushing agencies to find new ways to jumpstart innovation. Hackathons are the easiest and cheapest way to do that.

The idea is simple, get a bunch of smart and talented programmers together, provide them with an open data set, and have them help you solve a problem. That seems fairly straightforward. But it’s not. What about security? Intellectual property laws? Privacy?

Zachary Bastian is a legal fellow at the FCC. He is also formerly with the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He wrote a brief, The Power of Hackathons: A Roadmap for Sustainable Innovation. Bastian told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINISDER program that hackathons can produce great products for agencies if they are prepared for them.

“If a federal agency is going to host a hackathon it takes a lot of planning and collaboration. An agency is going to want to be very deliberate about the way that set the requirements for a hackathon so that they get good results, because frankly the hackathon culture needs to be part of a pattern of engagement on a larger basis within the agency, for it to work. If a hackathon is just a one-off event where you expect people to show up for a weekend give them pizza and coke and you are going to end up with an application you can use, you are being unrealistic,” said Bastian.

Elements of a successful hackathon?

  1. The hackathon needs to be part of a general agency policy, where you are interested in outside input and interested in getting different technologist into your building.
  2. Agencies have to be willing to unlock their data. If your data isn’t open this will not work.
  3. Government staff needs to have the mindset that we can learn from this.
  4. There needs to be a commitment from agencies to continue to work on these projects after the hackathon is over.
  5. When it comes to intellectual property the agency needs to make it clear from the beginning that nobody has ownership of these projects and no one is gong to be able to turn a profit from them.
  6. If the app is going to be used internally, the FISMA requirements need to be stated at the outset.
  7. Agencies will need to pre-determine if some data is too personal to open up. For example individual health data should be off limits to developers, even if they could create some amazing apps from the data.

“NASA is the leading agency when it comes to hosting hackathons. Their International Space Apps challenge really set the bar high. They have a strong foundation of international partnerships and continue to work on the problems once the hackathons are over,” said Bastian.

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