civic hackathons: innovation, procurement, or civic engagement?

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  • Civic Hackathons: Innovation, Procurement, orCivic Engagement?

    Peter JohnsonDepartment of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo,Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    Pamela RobinsonSchool of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


    At all levels, governments around the world are moving toward the provision of open data, that is, thedirect provision to citizens, the private sector, and other third parties, of raw government datasets,controlled by a relatively permissible license. In tandem with this distribution of open data is thepromotion of civic hackathons, or app contests by government. The civic hackathon is designed to offerprize money to developers as a way to spur innovative use of open data, more specifically the creationof commercial software applications that deliver services to citizens. Within this context, we propose thatthe civic hackathon has the potential to act in multiple ways, possibly as a backdoor to the traditionalgovernment procurement process, and as a form of civic engagement. We move beyond much of the hypeof civic hackathons, critically framing an approach to understanding civic hackathons through thesetwo lenses. Key questions for future research emphasize the emerging, and important, nature of thisresearch path.

    KEY WORDS: civic hackathon, big data, geoweb, web2.0, civic engagement, procurement, apps,open data

    Introduction: From Open Data to an Evaluation of Civic Hackathons

    Across the globe, governments of all levels are seeking to engage their citizens andsoftware development communities using open government data promoted anddistributed through application programming contests. Known as app contests orcivic hackathons, these largely government-sponsored events present open dataas an entrepreneurial carrot: by liberating data, governments create opportunitiesfor new mobile device app development, often driven by goals of improving servicesand citizengovernment relationships (Nath, 2011). By hosting these events, gov-ernments hope to signal their commitment to more transparent and open ways ofgoverning while also encouraging new app development. Despite their popularity,the civic hackathon is a relatively new phenomenon that has yet to receive muchresearch attention. To date there is little coordinated research to assess and trackthe short-term benefits and long-term implications of the hackathon event, for bothsponsoring governments and hackathon participants.

    Civic hackathons tap into the current zeitgeist of social innovation and entrepre-neurship by connecting civically minded hackers and coders to governments seekingto present a more open, transparent, and connected face to their citizenry. When welook beyond the buzz of the civic hackathon event itself, many questions arise. As theoutcome of a hackathon is a series of apps, we must consider if these events also servea form of procurement, one that takes place outside of traditional government



    Review of Policy Research, Volume 31, Number 4 (2014) 10.1111/ropr.12074 2014 by The Policy Studies Organization. All rights reserved.

  • purchasing procedures? Additionally, we question whether the apps produced haveany impact on government-provided services? Lastly, we question whether citizenengagement with government is either enhanced or restricted through directparticipation in a hackathon, and/or by using the apps that are produced by thehackathon.

    To consider these questions, we present an evaluation of civic hackathonsthrough the twin lenses of procurement and civic engagement. Identifying thistension between procurement and engagement allows us to move beyond thecurrent enthusiasm for civic hackathons, placing a focus instead on ethical andgovernance outcomes, as well as identifying key trajectories for future research inthis rapidly expanding space.

    Characterizing Open Data and Civic Hackathons

    The ubiquity of the Internet in everyday lives has led to e-government initiativesand significant advances in digital service and information provision, for example,by moving government forms and payments online (Brown, 2007; Chang &Kannan, 2008) and making the transactions between governments and their citi-zens easier and faster (Yildiz, 2007). Unlike typical documents (e.g., reports,minutes, budgets) distributed via e-government portals, open data provides rawdigital data that are collected as part of governmental processes. These raw (orlightly edited) data are a deliberate choice to move away from distilled and pack-aged information provision to citizens, and instead is envisioned as open ended,allowing data to enable a variety of uses in the hands of citizens as well as the private,public, and non-profit sectors. Open data is a term applied to the sharing of onceclosed or only internally accessible government data with the public, subject tolimited restrictions on use and reuse (Janssen, Charalabidis, & Zuiderwijk, 2012).The Open Knowledge Foundation provides what is essentially a manifesto for opendata: it should be freely available for anyone to use, repurpose, and republish asthey wish, governed with an open license that explicitly permits these types ofactivities. Data should be collected close to the originating source and frequently, toallow for automated processing, and be free of proprietary formats (OpenKnowledge Foundation, 2014). If the raw data cannot be reused at will, it fails thedefinition of open. Open data typically adds a transparency motive to existinge-government initiatives that pioneered the simple provision of government infor-mation and services online (Bertot, Jaeger, & Grimes, 2010; Piotrowski & VanRyzin, 2007).

    As more and more governments offer open data, communities of tech-savvydevelopers have responded by creating apps (software for personal mobile devices)that use government open data to generate content or provide services that ordi-nary citizens may find useful. More recently, with the explosion in use of mobileapps for every aspect of peoples interests and lives, has also come the increase inpopularity of the civic hackathon. The civic hackathon is a time-limited (typicallyhours or days) event, launched at a specific venue, where enthusiasts, governmentworkers, interested citizens, and the private sector meet in a collaborative environ-ment to access government open data. The goal of a civic hackathon is to leveragegovernment open data to develop software applications that address issues of

    350 Peter Johnson and Pamela Robinson

  • shared civic importance. Civic hackathons are often coupled with prize money orother material rewards for participants, and typically involve the release or promo-tion of new or potentially highly valued government data. Civic hackathons oftenpresent a specific problem or theme (such as transit, or engagement), to which thesponsoring government aims to direct participant efforts toward the developmentof an app serving some sort of public and/or market need. The recent example ofthe federally sponsored Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) hackathon(, demonstrates the general approach ofthe hackathon. Held over 48 hours in March 2014, the $25,000 winner of CODEwas an app called newRoots, designed to help new immigrants and current resi-dents to find a new neighborhood that matches their employment interests withhousing availability and presence of specific ethnic communities. With the goal ofhelping people to make a community and household location choice that offers thegreatest opportunity for them and maximizes their potential to be successful andproductive citizens (CODE, 2014), newRoots aims to package and deliver govern-ment data to meet a perceived need currently unfilled by existing governmentservices. In developing this app, the development team drew on federal open dataon housing opportunities, labor market trends, rates of employment, income, crimerates, and the ethnocultural diversity of communities.

    Civic hackathons follow a template set by the Apps for Democracy contestsponsored by the city of Washington, DC, in 2008. This contest was one of the firstlarge-scale civic hackathons, coinciding with the creation of a municipal open datacatalogue. According to the organizers, during the month-long contest, 47 smart-phone apps were created, representing a value of over $2,300,000 in software to thecity of Washington, for a government outlay of only $50,000 in prize money(Corbett, 2014). This stated value of software that was developed during the Appsfor Democracy contest represents the approximate price of private sector contractsto develop equivalent software. Despite the initial perceived success of this contest,and a follow-up contest in 2009 that focused on citizen requests, the long-termimplications, benefits, and sustainability of software developed through this contestremains unclear (Nagesh, 2010).

    The civic hackathon phenomenon has grown worldwide. Early in 2014, Pesha-war, Pakistan held a civic hackathon, presented as an opportunity to learn newskills, meet intelligent people and do good for the city by bringing technologyinnovation to civic services (Code for Pakistan, 2013). Similarly, in Santiago, Chilethis year, a civic hackathon was held to tackle issues of health, education, housing,and democratic quality (UNESCO, 2014), with two of its goals being to: 1. Promotethe use of public data for the development of innovative digital applications onHealth, Housing, Education and Democratic Quality, which are useful to the public[and] 2. Fostering a culture of transparency, accountability and reuse of publicinformation for social purposes and public interest (LabCivico, 2013). From Codefor America to Industry Canadas 2014 CODE event, civic hackathons are simulta-neously using open data as the pl