Radiography of a Hackathon, or how to design an event on civic technology


In recent years, the most popular and controversial format for events on civic technology has been the hackathon.

A hackathon is traditionally anevent in which, for a period of limited time (8 to 48 hours),multidisciplinary teams are combined to analyze and build technologicalsolutions for a social problem.

Generally a hackathon has the following attributes:

  • arespaces in which technical specialists (system developers and web visualizers) interact with specialists of civic-social causes and government.
  • are physical spaces of interaction among the same technical communities.
  • new ideas related to social problems are generated.
  • groups decontextualized from causes and social problems are sensibilized.
  • expectations of social impact amongst its participants and organizers are generated.

It is common, however, that there are important limitations in this events that detract their executions:

  • theapplications and technological solutions developed are not used by the civic-social counterparts, the government, and final users.
  • theapplications and technological solutions are not developed entirely, limiting their final products to prototypes and demonstrative exercises.
  • theapplications and technological solutions do not solve a real necessity.
  • theapplications and technological solutions developed are the same or very similar to developments already existent in the market or developed on other hackatons.
  • thepractices client-provider are replicated to develop a final product for a challenge, limiting the interaction in between technical communities and civic-social communities and government.
  • whenthe motivation focus is on prices, the technological communities tend to leave aside their civic-social motivations, giving more importance to the economic ones.

Basedon the experience, after realizing numerous civic hackathons in Latin America since 2011, at SocialTIC, we have undertaken the task to critically analyze formats civic events technology in order to avoid blindly “realizing a hackathon”, and to be able to design events that contemplate the essential characteristics to accomplish the civic and technological impact desired.

Here are some of the variants to be considered in designing a technological civic event:

Independently of the characteristics of an event like a hackathon, there are variables that should always be considered:

  • Involving all the participant actors (technologists, government, civil society, etc.) before the event so the nature of the event is known, and to establish expectations.
  • Communicate precisely the reasons why each actor must participate, since the motivations vary depending on the types of actors.
  • Having precise expectations about the desired impact of the event, to properly communicate them and so that the activities undertaken are consistent with these expectations.
  • Having information, data and specialists associated with the problems to be discussed at the event.
  • The available data must be in open formats and have the levels of granularity needed to perform the corresponding analysis to achieve the understanding of the problem, and generate inputs for applications or technological developments.
  • Having the specific requirements of technological developments to meet demand from the civic-social groups or government.
  • Having the necessary infrastructure to work and have spontaneous concurrence during the event.
  • Having the commitment and support of stakeholders demanding technological solutions so the processes of product development and implementation are carried out.
  • Perform the necessary broadcast, before, during and after the event so the actions, participants, and the results themselves are known.