On September 17th/18th, we co-hosted our second civic hackathon with the Toronto Public Library. Lina at the TPL has put together an excellent recap, including chaptered videos of each project presentation (big thanks Sumaiya).
We’ve learned a few things that may be helpful if you’re organizing a civic hacking event. To that end, I’m writing up a recipe of sorts on the process we followed – below are some of the ingredients. At the heart of this approach is civic education, data literacy, and civic engagement. There are endless ways to do these kinds of events, but if those goals speak to you, these ingredients (all or some) help make it happen.
Ingredients for a Civic Hackathon – Part 1
- Pick a real life government policy or public consultation to build the event around. By doing this, you ensure that the objective of civic education will automatically be met. For this hackathon, we focused on the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy.
- Work with the challenge owners to tightly define the challenges. As evidenced by this hackathon, more than 90% of our participants went with a pre-defined challenge rather than something they invented. The civic tech community is willing to work on behalf of our civic institutions – they want to help solve real problems. Make it easy for them to do so.
- Create an integrated lead-up timeline and process to meet and communicate constantly with the challenge owners. This is how you refine the challenges with the civic tech community and broader city partners. Work within your community. We organized within Civic Tech TO to meet at hack nights and the Toronto Open Data Book Club to support pre-work, learning, and discovery. We also made good use of the Civic Tech TO Slack channel to co-ordinate questions and work. Work across your community as a whole, both before and after the event.
- Identify challenge project leaders as they emerge during the pre-event work. Having leaders for the projects simplifies the working day of the hackathon – there are people and projects for participants to join, they do not have to start from scratch, it saves a lot of time on team creation, and people can just dive into the work. It also supports group collaboration rather than people working solo. These features are all good for network development, engagement, and learning. Even without a project leader, having challenges makes it easy to say – “people who are interested in this topic, meet up at table 1, table 2” and so on.
- Keep the event short – a weekend, but a short weekend. We did one day of work on Saturday (9-5) and a half day of presentations on Sunday (1.30-5). Short days make a weekend commitment more manageable for a broader range of people, and less logistics heavy, and all-around less intense.
- Start your second day with a policy check-in. We did a quick panel with the challenge owners to talk about poverty reduction in Toronto, how their respective institutions were playing a role in this work (the Toronto Public Library, City of Toronto and Social Planning Toronto), and related opportunities for civic engagement. “i.e. I’m a hackathon participant, I want to do something politically to support this policy after this weekend, what do I do?” This panel resets the tone regarding why the civic hack was organized, who it matters to, how to engage on the issue at City Hall, etc. It creates the space to have a short discussion on your hackathon topic and a chance for people to engage on a political topic within the civic tech context that they came for. This is about defining civic engagement next steps for everyone.
- Make the event non-competitive – no judging, no prizes. This is a core feature. All work has a place to be shown and there is no time is wasted on judging. This opens up more time for participants to show and discuss their work, and the work is understood as volunteer contributions to civic causes/institutions. There is additional incentive of potential connections and support from the challenge owners (in this case, the Toronto Public Library, the City of Toronto, and Social Planning Toronto) to make the projects a reality. Helping civic institutions see what’s possible using tech and data is a big accomplishment – the projects don’t need to all come to fruition. There is immense value in the showcase too.
- Content and tech mentors are vital – find them and support them. There is a huge wealth of talent and knowledge within the people that make up our civic tech community and our civic institutions. These events create a chance to build community between them, and highlights the promise and value in finding new ways to all work together on civic issues. But be realistic too – this is all happening on the side of people’s desks and as volunteers.
So there’s some. More to come, both on ingredients and process. And some of the softer stuff that needs more words, as well as denser details for organizers about hackathon planning meetings.
Super happy to share that Dr. Karen Louise Smith of Brock University has been following along with our work for research purposes, so we’ll keep you posted on her publications as well.
And finally, the biggest thank you to Carmen Ho, Lina Kim, and Ab Velasco of the TPL for your leadership in the civic tech space and your commitment to community partnership. Toronto’s very lucky to have you and we’re looking forward to more fun together in 2017.
Ingredients for a Civic Hackathon by Bianca Wylie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at http://toronto.theodi.org/2016/10/10/ingredients-civic-hackathon-part-1-2/.