A group of civic hackers, technologists, public servants, and community leaders for the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul, and metro area) focused on improving the technology of our cities. We are a Code for America Brigade partnered with E-Democracy.org.
See our Mission Statement and Goals for more information.
By Bill Bushey
Hack for MN 2013 was a huge success, and a fun weekend (see some of the fun in our new Flickr Group)! Minnesota’s version of Hack for Change - the national event of events that brought citizens, community leaders, civil servants, and technologists together to experiment and address community issues across the country - brought out 75 participants who worked on 13 great projects over the course of 19 hours. Now that we’ve all had some time to relax and reflect on this event, I’d like to share some thoughts on this milestone event for civic innovation in the Twin Cities.
Open Twin Cities is around 7 months old. In that short time we’ve talked and worked with quite a few people who share our passion for creating new technologies and solutions for community issues, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback that supports this passion. However, we were never sure whether the civic innovation community in the Twin Cities was a niche of a dozen or so people, or a significant community of hundreds. Hack for MN and the previous weekend’s Visualizing Neighborhoods has put an end to that uncertainty. Combined, these two events hosted over 125 Twin Cities citizens and leaders who spent beautiful weekends working indoors (mostly) on community issues. Simply put, the dedication and passion these hackathon participants showed at these two events is the best proof yet that there is a large, healthy, and growing community of civic innovators in the Twin Cities.
Like the size of the community, early on we were uncertain about how willing government technology leaders in the Twin Cities would be to embrace a group of ‘civic hackers’. Again, Hack for MN put an end to that uncertainty. In fact, Hack for MN became a great vehicle for building new relationships between the civic hacking community and government IT leaders and reinforcing existing relationships.
One heartening outcome of Hack for MN was all of the support that government IT officials displayed for the participants of Hack for MN and the civic hacking community in the Twin Cities. The technology leaders of the State of Minnesota, City of Minneapolis, and City of St. Paul all participated during the weekend. Furthermore, all three technology leaders made opening remarks that included themes of:
During opening remarks, we emphasized that teams should do what they want to do to address their chosen issue. ‘Whatever happens this weekend is exactly what has to happen’. While we asked teams to work on projects and provided examples of possible outcomes (i.e. prototypes, APIs, plans), we purposefully did not emphasize a specific outcome.
This is the fourth hackathon that I’ve been a part of. Even though experience should put my mind at ease, there is always a concern that making an event this open ended will result in a disaster of confusion and idleness. Once again, Hack for MN addressed that concern and proved that open endedness is a good thing.
The projects that presented on Sunday afternoon (you can read their descriptions and find links on our Hack for MN Projects page) represented a wide swath of types of work. Some teams dove right into technical challenges and came out of the weekend with a greater knowledge of the data and programming needs of their project. A few teams successfully created prototypes that can be the foundation of iterative research and development. At least one team even managed to publicly release a project to users of the Twin Cities.
Quite a few teams stepped back from programing and focused instead on identifying the root causes of their chosen issues and the needs of those who will use their solution. These teams had in-depth discussions on causes, researched existing information related to their project issues, and conducted user research (i.e. talked to actual, potential users). By Sunday afternoon, these teams were able to present an impressive understanding of context of their chosen issues, the needs that a solution will have to address, as well as project and organizational plans. Hackathons run the risk of focusing too much on building technology. It is important to remember that, depending on the project, understanding the problem and defining the processes that the technology will operate in can be as important, or more important than, standing up a website.
A lot of hurdles can prevent a team from making progress on a project. One risk to holding such an open ended event is that the desire for unencumbered innovation will lead to a lack of structure for helping derailed teams. Hack for MN was definitely exposed to this risk, a fact we know because DevJam owner David Hussman stepped up to fill this lack of structure for a team that needed help.
Combining his experience as a successful entrepreneur with his outside perspective, David was able to help a team that was spinning its wheels to solidly define the problem they wanted to address and focus their skills and energy on that concretely defined problem. We’re thankful that David was willing to help in the way that he did. We're also thankful that he forced us to ask “what if David hadn’t been there?", and provided an example for Open Twin Cities to follow in future events.
A lot of organizers partnered to plan and participate in Hack for MN.
In addition, a lot of resources (both financial and items) were provided by a number of sponsors.
With Hack for MN 2013 wrapped up, I'd like to invite all participants to join/follow/and meetup with Open Twin Cities to meet even more civic innovators and take part in similar events through out the year.