What’s Up With the Hackathons, Man?

Let’s stop and think about it

Throughout college, I’ve developed what I like to call a healthy dose of intolerance for malfunction. I say “healthy” because this intolerance fuels my passion for problem solving as public service. Along with this, however, I’ve also grown an unhealthy theory crutch. I say “unhealthy” because theory is rarely the thing that gets me on my feet and on the ground. The bittersweet thing, now, is that I see similar symptoms present in the vibrant hackathon syndrome of today’s socially relevant technology sphere.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen countless civic hackathon events pop up all over the country in the name of everything from healthcare to elections. In the span of just two days, from May 31 to June 1, last year’s National Day of Civic Hacking sprouted more than 120 events across 103 cities. Adjectives like “broken” or “dysfunctional” are often attached to the theme of the hackathon in event descriptions. Luckily for the new generation, today’s civic hackers are itching to tackle age-old problems like campaign finance and citizen engagement with innovation.

The underlying philosophy of holding hackathons is a no-nonsense one: It’s broken, so let’s fix it. As a generation whose social lives were born into the seemingly perfect color patterns and layouts of no-glitch social networks like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter, we meet malfunction with confusion and frustration. We wonder why it occurs, and why more isn’t done to fix it. One visit to a civic hackathon will erase any doubt that the confusion and frustration have been healthy and productive. Last year’s Civic Hacking Day produced more than 100 projects alone on important topics such as education, homelessness, the environment, healthcare, and criminal justice.

But why do we so rarely see hackathon projects making a truly big impact? If all that developers promise at hackathons on international development, healthcare, and criminal justice had happened, wouldn’t we be living in a utopia?

Many of the most successful civic innovation projects today (look at Google’s public transit and election APIs) have been the result of months or years of the quietly diligent work of setting bridges and leveling out risk among various public and private data holders to build a network of cooperative data standardization. Organizing is a good phrase to describe how the groundwork (and not just in terms of data) for truly impactful civic tech projects is born, and what today’s hackathon projects aren’t doing particularly well.


Nothing is really broken if you think about it. It’s just that people aren’t always good, diligent, creative, and outward-looking. The reason that the 21st century's techno-euphoria relies on technology to change everything in the world is because making new apps and finding points of “disruptive innovation” is easier than changing our fellow human beings.

I’ll end with a story about a civic tech project that is slow, but doing it right in my opinion. The project Open Referral, whose goal is a standardized community resource directory database, has been in the works for quite some time. The proper title for a person behind these projects is not “hacker” but “organizer.” They travel city by city, combing carefully through each one. They form relationships, build bridges, and open people’s imaginations to the impact that their information has on thousands of disadvantaged individuals. At the end of their data organizing campaign, the human chemistry behind their giant database will be quite the mind-blower.

Today’s hackathons are rightly full of the energy, initiative, and frustration that power them. But at the end of the day, the civic apps that come out of these events are no more than the political philosophy papers I churn out as a poli-sci student if they are not built upon and for grassroots initiatives and participation. In the face of technology that has increasingly allowed us to do more with a single click or swipe, we must not forget to sweat for the solutions to our malfunctions.

Jenny J. Choi ’16, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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