Civic Hack Day: What I did last weekend


Last weekend I took part in the local iteration of the National Hack Day Celebration. I had looked into the Hack Day events beforehand because I had been trying to persuade some rural communities to participate yet I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I attended the event. I thought I’d share the experience in part to persuade other communities to think about this in the future and to persuade more people to think about attending such events – because I thought it was a fun event, worth my time and could lead to some actual products or projects.

I’ll borrow from an article from Tech.MN for the logistics of the event…

Organized by OpenTwinCities and hosted by DevJam, roughly 75 individuals — citizens, developers and entrepreneurs – have formed 15 teams to collaborate around solving local issues using open data.

It was a two-day event, although due to family commitments I really only attended one day. I attended with my daughter Aine, who is 8. We arrived just in time to hear welcomes from Andrea Casselton (St. Paul CIO), Otto Doll (Minneapolis CIO) and Carolyn Parnell (State CIO). It was great to have their participation both in terms of connecting willing geeks with government counterparts but also to demonstrate government commitment to open data and public-private partnership.

Here’s a midday look from Steven Clift on what we looked like.

Before the event, participants and others were invited to share ideas for projects. Twenty ideas were selected and posted on the walls. Attendees could sign up to tackle any idea. Then we gathered at tables to get started. The process was reminiscent of Art of Hosting – the people in the room were the right people. Take responsibility for making the most of your time. Work together. If you’re not having fun, you’re not working hard enough. (I paraphrase!)

Aine and I chose a project that related to education in part because I figured she might be helpful and find it interesting. The idea was a website for tutors.

We joined a table of three gentleman already in discussion. While I wasn’t the oldest person in the room, nor the only female I wasn’t the average demographic either and our group reflected the makeup of the room. Everyone had an appreciation for each other’s talents. We spent time learning about what talents we brought to the table and discussed what the idea might be and what problems it might solve. Our group included some code expertise, some subject specialists, project management skills and other skills. At least one person was very passionate about the topic. Two of us would have been happy to just lend out talents to anything. And the rest fell somewhere in the middle.

We spent too long talking about the possibilities and potential pitfalls of our idea. About 6:00 someone from DevJam came and gently set us straight. In fairness I think we were all just being a little too polite – but also an outside voice to help keep us on track was super helpful – especially after a full day of brainstorming. But once we got a vision in place the work flowed. Someone created the website, someone created a presentation, I started creating content. Half of the team worked straight through 10 PM. I was committed to writing a music review – but did return about 9:00 to help more.

The following day the teams worked on finishing their projects. Our project turned into an idea for a youth-focused technology challenge and while it wasn’t an idea we could complete in the weekend, it was one we could present to the group. The grand finale of the weekend, each team presents their own work to the group. Our project was named most ambitious project and we won lunch with Carolyn Parnell!

So the results of the weekend include:

  • A lot of good ideas. I know my group has talked about how to build on the momentum.
  • A few finished projects such as the Real Time Bus Arrival Info for Minneapolis.
  • A lot of good connections. I’ve already had lunch with one team member and am working to help find a way to bring this energy to rural Minnesota
  • A feeling of partnership between public and private entities – both individuals and companies.

From a planning perspective, there was clearly a lot of work done in advance. We had breakfast, lunch dinner ice cream. The rooms were set with cool tools to get us working together. Most folks had laptops or tablets or smartphones. Organizers from DevJam were there to make sure all of the needs were met – from finding a fun toy for my 8 year old to stepping in with some project scope support. And all skills were valuable. A Civic Hackathon isn’t just for techies. I think that’s an important piece. Techies are helpful for complex projects – but as teams develop project they work with the tools at hand and that includes tech expertise. It goes back to the right people being in the room.