California City Jumpstarts Innovation With Civic Hackathon

In 2009, Pasadena, California, wanted to increase community engagement and boost their innovation strategy. There were many ideas and recommendations on how that could be done.

What did they choose as a key enabler of the program to achieve that engagement and increased innovation?

In the words of Phillip Leclair, the chief information officer (CIO) for the City of Pasadena, civic hacking was their primary enabler!

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.”

Admittedly, Northeast Wisconsin does not have as many tech industry workers and companies as Southern California does, but we should learn from Pasadena’s experience and figure out whether civic hackathons have value for cities in our region.

Pasadena didn’t get started on civic hacking as quickly as they wanted because they were “faced with recovering from the economic pressures at the time and a large backlog of technology projects.” In 2012 they started serious work on connecting and expanding the civic hacker community and publishing city government information in open data formats. Leclair says,

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… 

…there was growing interest by a few city executives to release financial data using budget visualization tools instead of the typical static PDF reports…Over the next three months, a team within the city’s technology department brainstormed all the potential data sets available and prioritized those easiest and least controversial to release. At the same time, I pitched the hackathon opportunity to the other city executives to gain support. Within three months we were able to release 74 data sets in time for the hackathon… 

Over two days in March 2014, the hackathon event was held at the local community college campus. It attracted participants from local area schools and technology and design professionals for a weekend of hands-on problem solving to re-imagine the way the web, software apps, data, and technology can shape the future of Pasadena. Some 100 registered participants came together to compete for more than $6,000 in cash prizes. 

Teams formed around community challenges inspired by the personal experiences and interests shared by the participants, along with the newly released city data sets. After two days and nearly 30 hours of designing and building their web or mobile app prototypes, the teams presented their solutions to a panel of highly qualified judges, representing executives and investors from the local tech community. The majority of apps developed set out to solve traffic, transit, parking, health, finance, utility, economic development, and community service challenges…”

Every city has different needs, different challenges and different resources. What works for one city in Southern California won’t necessarily work for your city in Northeast Wisconsin. But finding out how civic hacking helped cities in other parts of the country and might be useful for improving innovation and citizen engagement in cities here.

I’m going to reach out to Phillip Leclair to ask him if he’ll share his experiences and advice regarding civic hacking with city leaders in our region.

If you’re interested in learning how to  increase community engagement and jumpstart innovation in your city the way Pasadena did, contact Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com. We can meet to discuss ways for you to get involved with civic hacking!

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