Hackathons: Hack What You Lack

Could your next great idea come from a hackathon? Taking a note from the tech world, organizations are realizing the value in this intense, collaborative type of group problem solving.

How do you get information flowing more freely in a country known for strict censorship and limited internet access? That was the challenge presented to roughly 40 computer programmers and developers during the Hackathon for Cuba in February.

Produced by the nonprofit Roots of Hope, which works to bridge the gap between Cubans on and off the island, the daylong event resulted in 12 prototype projects, including one that would help disseminate Cuban blogs to the outside world, according to the Miami Herald.

Last summer, British Airways hosted a hackathon at 30,000 feet in the air aboard a flight from San Francisco to London. The airline’s UnGrounded hack brought together more than 100 tech professionals to come up with ideas to help mitigate the global disconnect between talent and job opportunities, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

“Great innovation happens when you bring people together face to face, not when you have people sitting alone in rooms,” Simon Talling-Smith, executive vice president of British Airways, said during a press conference announcing the event.

That intense, time-limited, face-to-face collaboration is the heart and soul of the hackathon, a method of collaborative problem solving that was born in the world of tech startups in the 1990s. Hackathons were traditionally a means of bringing together computer programmers to create new software and tech solutions. Facebook famously hosted hackathons to develop features such as the “Like” button and “Timeline” display.

But these days, hackathons have advanced beyond Silicon Valley and are now being used by businesses, community activists, and nonprofits to create innovative products and programs, as well as help spark new ideas and solve real-world problems. Associations are seeing the value of hackathons too and are jumping on the bandwagon.

We all get so heads-down on what we’re doing. We’re buried in email; we have 50 things on our to-do lists; and on top of that we’re bombarded with information, so we miss things that could be opportunities.

Worlds Collide

Last fall, the International City/County Management Association sponsored its first-ever hackathon to come up with new mobile apps to help members, local government managers, better serve their constituents.

The genesis of the event stemmed from ICMA’s conference planning committee, says Cory Fleming, ICMA’s program director for 311 (the phone number many municipalities use for nonemergency services) and CRM technical assistance services. “They were pushing the whole idea of technology and how we need to do a better job of making sure local governments are tapped into technology and know what is out there to help them better engage their citizens as well as provide better service delivery.”

Fleming recalls one ICMA member who approached her at a conference and voiced his concerns about developing the right app.

“‘I’m on my third app for our community,’ he said, ‘and it’s a big deal when the app’s $7,000 or $8,000, but by the time you spend that three times it begins to add up and take a chunk out of your budget,’ ” Fleming recalls the member telling her. “So, if we can help our members make better decisions about what apps to buy and what functionalities they need in those apps and what technologies, I think that’s a real service right there.”

The association partnered with geographic information system software provider Esri and online community management company MindMixer to host the half-day Hackstock for #LocalGov at its annual meeting in Boston.

“We had it in conjunction with our annual conference so that there would hopefully be some dialogue back and forth between local government executives and developers, because right now there’s not a whole lot of understanding between them,” Fleming says. While developers and programmers may have creative ideas about how to use government data, for example, they aren’t always aware of local government process and procedure, she adds.

To help bridge the gap, the association first hosted a brainstorming exercise with about a dozen local government managers from around the country to list about 150 to 200 types of apps they would like to see developed.

That became the input for Hackstock, which brought together roughly 40 Boston-area programmers to develop prototype apps. Judged according to nine criteria—including thoughtfulness of utilizing civic data, quality of concept, and collaboration with local leaders—the winning projects included a concept app that would allow local government managers to illustrate the amount of funds being spent in different neighborhoods and districts. Another app would help elections commissions maximize voter turnout by delivering turnout information at various polling places.

While there are no concrete plans yet to develop the winning apps, the hackathon was successful at bringing new ideas to the table and raising awareness among ICMA’s members about technology’s capabilities, Fleming says.

Reaching Out

Generating new ideas outside the tech realm was the purpose behind a recent “employee experience” hackathon cohosted by several associations, including the Golden Gate Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development.

“We wanted to sponsor the event because hackathons have traditionally been used in the software industry but not so much applied in the area of employee engagement,” says the chapter’s vice president of communications, Pi Wen Looi.

The “Hack the Experience” event was in close alignment with ASTD’s mission of empowering professionals to develop knowledge and skills, and, as a side benefit, it was a way to freshen up the association’s image among younger professionals—a noticeably small demographic among ASTD chapters around the country, Looi says.

“We hoped that by sponsoring this event, because it’s a little bit more hip and up-to-date, that we could draw in more young professionals,” she says. “It really helps expose us to a broader audience.”

During the daylong hackathon, 90 professionals from the human resources, communications, organizational development, and corporate social responsibility fields were sorted into 12 teams to develop and pre­sent “hacks” aimed at solving eight employee-experience challenges, such as attracting the right job candidates and helping employees connect their daily work with their employer’s purpose and strategy.

“The way we structured it, we had a diverse group of people come together in each team, so we had a diversity of ideas and opinions and backgrounds, and that in itself helps facilitate a lot of creative dialogue,” says Looi, who also served as one of the event’s five judges.

That diversity of participant experience was one of the reasons Terry Barton, ASTD Golden Gate Chapter board member, wanted to take part in the event.

“Employee engagement is a complex problem. There’s more than one thing that feeds into whether or not a person is engaged,” she says. “A hackathon like this gets a lot of people thinking about the problem in different ways. You’re kind of attacking it from different angles.”

Like ICMA, the hosting organizations have no concrete plans to develop the winning hack—a “Career Safari” app that allows users to map and personalize their career journeys—or any of the 11 other final projects, says Liz Kelly, CEO of Brilliant Ink, the employee engagement consulting firm that originally conceived of the idea for the hackathon.

“The goal was really to come up with some cool ideas that our participants could take back to their own companies,” says Kelly, whose firm produced a detailed report of the event and is planning to check in with participants soon to see if any have implemented the hacks at their organizations.

While it remains to be seen what solutions might be developed, hackathons like Hack the Experience provide a valuable opportunity for professionals to think creatively and engage with a group of people they may not be regularly exposed to, Kelly says.

“We all get so heads-down on what we’re doing. We’re buried in email; we have 50 things on our to-do lists; and on top of that we’re bombarded with information, so we miss things that could be opportunities,” Kelly says. “A hackathon is a really tangible way to get out of that and interact with other professionals and use your brain.”

(MBBirdy/Getty Images)

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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