San Mateo County Reflects on Their First Hackathon

June 22, 2015 12:00 pm PST | Data as a Service

On June 6, 2015, the County of San Mateo held their first ever hackathon as part of the annual National Day of Civic Hacking. Hack SMC participants were asked to use the County’s open data portal to create web and mobile apps that addressed ending homelessness, improving reading proficiency in schools, and encouraging foster children to complete high school. Both civic leaders and corporate sponsors alike came out to support the participants and promote community involvement.

Three members of the Hack SMC team, Reyna Farrales, John Ridener, and Jeffrey Lew, sat down with Socrata mere days before their event to give a webinar presentation on engaging citizens with open data events. When asked why they took on the challenge of a hackathon, Lew said, “There are so many great ideas out in the community and we want to get our residents more involved in government. This event really gives citizens the chance to help shape the way the county utilizes data and technology for years to come.”

We checked back with the Hack SMC team and local government representatives after their event to learn how it went and hear about the unique ideas that were dreamed up by participants.

Hack SMC team with Supervisor Warren Slocum and Donna Vaillancourt, Department Head for Human Resources (center) in Board Chambers before the event
Hack SMC team with Supervisor Warren Slocum and Donna Vaillancourt, Department Head for Human Resources (center) in Board Chambers before the event

Congratulations on your holding your first hackathon! How did the event go?

John Ridener, Open Data Liason: Hack SMC was a great success! We were actually over capacity for registrations and had about 70 participants the day of the event. 23 teams made presentations at the end of the day, which was exciting. Our judges were so impressed with the quality of the solutions and ideas that they awarded four $500 honorable mention prizes, one of which went to our youngest participant who was 12 years old.

We also had a great group of County volunteers and subject matter experts on hand to make sure the event ran smoothly and answer questions about county government and our open data portal. We wouldn’t have been able to have such a great event without them.

Jon Walton, CIO: Hack SMC was a great example of how we can strengthen connections among residents and their government and in the process provide better and more efficient services for all. Having over 70 participants focused on using Open Data to address community issues such as education and social services demonstrates how together we can continually find new and innovative solutions that benefit our whole community.

Supervisor Slocum with the 1st place team, Homeless Analytics
Supervisor Slocum with the 1st place team, Homeless Analytics

How do you think the participants did in general? Were there any surprises?

John Ridener: I was engaged and interested by every entry. It seems cliche to say, but as someone who works with the data we publish on the open data portal data everyday, I was really excited about how each entry had a unique point of view and approached its specific problem in a different way. It was rewarding to see the County’s data used in such a huge variety of ways.

I was also impressed with how the participants worked on our focus areas of homelessness, foster youth aging out of the system, and third grade reading ability. It seems a bit like magic, but it’s a great proof of how crowdsourcing can work when trying to take on difficult problems like these.

Hack SMC team before the event (team member Eric Forgaard not pictured)
Hack SMC team before the event (team member Eric Forgaard not pictured)

It sounds like a great success! Will Hack SMC be back next year?

John Ridener: Definitely! We learned a lot hosting this first event and I’m excited about the opportunity to improve on our planning processes. I’m also looking forward to the first meeting of San Mateo County’s civic tech meetup which we’re spinning out of the hackthon. We’re hoping to capitalize on the excitement and energy generated by the hackathon to keep participants engaged with the County. It’s also a great opportunity to encourage interested non-coders to participate in technological solutions to issues the County faces. Plus, they’ll have an advantage when the next hackathon rolls around!

Warren Slocum, County Supervisor: It was just amazing to see the diversity among the young people in the room. You could feel the electricity in the air. I’m really looking forward to using some of the award-winning apps, and holding our next hackathon!


Interested in hosting your own hackathon? Download our How to Run a Hackathon guide. 


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