Academic journal article The Public Manager

Hackathons: A Jump Start for Innovation: A Civic Hackathon Improves Transparency, Increases Community Engagement, and Builds Innovation in the City of Pasadena

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Hackathons: A Jump Start for Innovation: A Civic Hackathon Improves Transparency, Increases Community Engagement, and Builds Innovation in the City of Pasadena

Article excerpt

How can your agency jumpstart an Open Data initiative, increase community engagement, and bring life to your innovation strategy? One answer: sponsor a hackathon.

Many local governments are on a journey to be more transparent, improve efficiency in service delivery, and increase civic engagement. Although multiple programs and initiatives can be aligned to support these goals, sponsoring a civic-themed hackathon produced the most visible success toward reaching these goals in the city of Pasadena, California.

Open Data Is a Catalyst

Initiating an Open Data strategy played an influential part in Pasadena's story. In early 2009, the economic downturn placed huge pressure on cities and government agencies to continue delivering services while reducing costs and sometimes headcount. In Pasadena, requests for public records were piling up, but staffing levels were being reduced.

Local officials had to find a new way to process public requests, and technology was the automation and management solution of choice. Through the public records automation project, the first discussions around opening data sets through the city's website were brought to light.

Around the same time, other cities were experimenting with releasing hundreds of data sets to hungry application developers who would "mash up" information in ways government officials and program administrators never imagined possible. Through the release of data, applications were developed that sparked an entirely new innovation culture, which included volunteer developers and designers willing to build applications that improve the communities where they work and live.

In Pasadena, we wanted to do the same, so that we could unlock opportunities and leverage the talents of those in our community.

Then in 2011, Code for America inaugurated its first cohort of cities that believe in the power of technology and data to innovate local government. I watched in admiration as the first Code for America cities brought together a network of people to help improve government services through innovative use of technology and data.

I believed that Pasadena could follow the positive examples of these pioneering cities. Unfortunately, faced with recovering from the economic pressures at the time and a large backlog of technology projects, moving ahead with an Open Data strategy was put on the backburner.

Instead, we focused on releasing commonly requested information in a machine-readable and raw format. We targeted geographic information system (GIS) data sets, such as council districts, city boundaries, and street and parcel information. We also developed a web application to show city services by address. These two initiatives were our first steps toward opening city data.

The Hackathon Gains Momentum

In 2012, a community-driven nonprofit organization called Innovate Pasadena was formed with the goal to bring visibility to Pasadena as a technology, innovation, and research and design center in Southern California, as well as create a community of technology professionals, engineering and design companies, and other professionals.

Through this organization, we found a few passionate individuals willing to help organize a civic-themed hackathon. We held a few brainstorming sessions to begin the planning process, but it took nearly one year to gain the momentum to finally commit to the hackathon event.

Once the event date was set, city officials needed to determine which data sets could be released for use during the event. Fortunately, there was growing interest by a few city executives to release financial data using budget visualization tools instead of the typical static PDF reports. …

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