Datathons and open data portals: Virginia’s new civic tech initiatives

Are you ready to #HackVA? (Image credit: Data.Virginia.gov)

In Virginia, residents now have the chance to make their state government more efficient, transparent and responsive to all: A hackathon challenges everyone to use the state’s open data to develop cutting-edge tools and applications that, if selected, could be presented to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and over 300 local government innovators.

In April 2014, McAuliffe announced Virginia’s new open data portal in an attempt to modernize the state and provide greater accountability. Then in September, he convened state agencies to collaborate on nascent big data projects. A few weeks ago, McAuliffe announced the 2015 Virtual Datathon Challenge, a competition to encourage anyone to produce original, sophisticated applications for government agencies to implement.

McAuliffe and his administration continue to emphasize the significant role of the public in helping the government develop better technology. On the commonwealth’s open data website, it describes opening up information as empowering “the public to unlock the value of the data.” The Virtual Datathon Challenge also reflects this desire to incorporate civilians: College students at partnering universities will spend the semester working on different high-tech projects; regional civic coding groups — such as Code for America — will provide its members with state data to create new solutions; and any Virginia resident can participate in the virtual hackathon organized by Karen Jackson, the secretary of technology. Additionally, state and local government agency workers will join together tomorrow for a “48-hour coding blitz” in order to manufacture apps to streamline bureaucracy and open economic opportunities.

The best projects from each of the four tracks will be selected to compete at the Governor’s Datathon Cup in September, during which the various teams present their creations to government officials, business entrepreneurs and investors.

But that’s not the only exciting bit of news from Virginia: Richmond recently announced a new initiative to foster a more collaborative relationship between the public and the local government. Recently, Richmond launched an online data portal that allows anyone to access and interact with the municipality’s data. On the website, a user can inspect financial data from 2015, the location of registered civic associations or various school zones. Although many other cities across the country possess similar information sharing platforms, Richmond demonstrates a larger commitment by the state of Virginia in the last year to improve its data transparency and government efficiency.

Virginia deserves recognition for outsourcing data innovation to the public. In the Datathon Challenge press release, Jackson noted, “We are seeing a movement where longstanding challenges are being solved by technology solutions developed by a growing population of civic coders,” suggesting that government will be able to accomplish even more by welcoming input from citizen programmers. By incentivizing its citizens to participate in transforming government data into practical, useful applications, the commonwealth is both gaining from these new technological solutions and from including the broader public in government functions. Such hackathons appear to be win-wins for government agencies, resulting in increased public trust and better operations. It would be fantastic if other states followed up with similar tournaments or competitions in order to increase data transparency.

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