Seattle Hackathon Innovates for ‘Real World Impact’

January 9, 2019 9:41 am PST | Civic Awesome

Traffic collisions, orca pods, and voters guides — what will you hack to advance the public good?

Hacky New Year, the fourth in a series of Seattle-area tech-for-good hackathons, taps into Seattle’s open data portal. It takes place 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at Code Fellows.

The event is open to the civic tech community, especially people with backgrounds in coding, design, research, project management, and subject matter expertise. Get inspired, imagine a better future, and contribute your talent.

City of Seattle Open Data Manager Paul Alley, who was hired in October from King County, where he was the open data solutions architect, will attend the hackathon. He called the event a win-win for municipalities.

“Civic hackathons like these provide innovators with a chance to discover unmet civic data needs, and develop creative solutions that might otherwise never come to fruition,” Alley said. “They’re a win-win for municipalities that often have more challenges than resources, and for civic tech volunteers who are often eager to serve their communities but don’t know where to start. Solution marketplaces like DemocracyLab, hackathons, and outreach with the broader civic tech community also have the potential to help us understand where gaps might exist in the city’s open data inventory. We can then take this information back to city departments and work with them to identify and publish datasets that have the potential of serving unmet community needs.”

Mark Frischmuth is the executive director of Democracy Lab.
Mark Frischmuth is the executive director of DemocracyLab.

Mark Frischmuth, an organizer of the hackathon series and executive director of DemocracyLab, spoke recently with us about what he hopes to accomplish.

What do you hope people take away from meeting City of Seattle Open Data Manager Paul Alley? We want all of the volunteers to hear about the city of Seattle’s commitment to open data and civic tech, and the types of data that the city is making available. What I’m hoping to demonstrate is that there is a connection between the projects that get worked on in the civic tech community and the authorities at the city and state level. And one day, perhaps officials on the national level who are listening, who care, and who want to be a part of the solutions skilled volunteers can bring to the table.

What do you want this hackathon to accomplish? We want — big picture —  for these good ideas and good intentions to turn into impact in the real world. We’re looking for projects to make progress on their goals, to build their teams of volunteers, and strengthen the community that is growing through the programs and network.

How many hackathons have you been a part of? Just one before I started to organize them.

A really useful series of events for DemocracyLab was the Seattle Social Good Series that occurred in the summer of 2017, organized by AIGA. Of the 20 projects that started there, only two continued: DemocracyLab was one and another that dealt with finding apartments.

The hackathon series kicked off in September. Saturday's Hacky New Year is the fourth in the series.
The hackathon series kicked off in September. Saturday’s Hacky New Year is the fourth in the series.

Tell me about DemocracyLab. DemocracyLab is something I’ve been working on since the day after the 2004 election. It was a different iteration at that point. The idea was to create an open source platform to crowdsource public policy. Eventually we formed a nonprofit, gained 501c3 status, recruited a board, raised some money, and built the platform. We made lots of mistakes that are pretty obvious in hindsight…

When I came back to it in 2011-2012, the landscape was a lot different. It seemed like there were hundreds of iterations of similar ideas across the civic technology space. There are a lot of smart people with good ideas and of passion, but not a lot of resources and very little connectivity between stakeholders. That’s how the idea hatched for the current iteration of DemocracyLab. What’s needed is a platform to connect stakeholders in the civic-tech ecosystem. We’re focusing initially on the connection between volunteers and projects, and partnering with Open Seattle, Seattle Data for Good, Seattle Tech for Good.

What’s been really great about it is we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the projects that they made substantial progress that they don’t believe they would have made in the absence of the platform and the hackathon programs we’ve been putting on.

What’s different about this hackathon? One of the things we did differently is position the hackathon not as something that people show up and build something in a day or in a weekend, but that they make progress and then continue the volunteer engagement through to the next hackathon, where they refresh their team and make more progress and keep going.

We’re a lot more interested in seeing projects sustain momentum than trying to see what people could hack together in a day.

Effective data-driven storytelling lets governments go beyond simply making data available to the public. See how Socrata Perspectives connect the dots between policy and outcomes.


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