Indianapolis is proud to have hosted its second annual civic hackathon in June, but let’s take a wider look for just a minute.  Indy’s Civic Hackathon was one of 106 cities that participated in the National Civic Day of Hacking.  Even several years ago, there was a “buzz” around civic innovation.  A major catalyst was Code for America (CfA) that started in 2009.  Since then, the movement has been steadily building spawning dozens of CfA local volunteer groups or Brigades.  However, civic innovation is still a new enough concept that most people may not have heard of it before or really understand it.  Here is some background.

Many traditional challenges of government are well known.  The idea that government is slow, burdened with bureaucracy and not very cost effective (e.g., cost overruns of government contracts) resonate with most people.  The idea of creating innovative solutions to get around these traditional problems, however, is not very well known in most circles.  Most of the focus has been on open-source apps and open data because the last several years have seen a proliferation of tools to make app creation much quicker and easier.

This year’s Indy Civic Hackathon was ambitious: There were several interesting and complex challenges submitted from the State of Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Indianapolis Public Schools, and the City of Indianapolis.  Also, VIPs were on hand like Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellspermann, Congresswoman Susan Brooks, State CIO Paul Baltzell, and Senator Joe Donnelly who spoke via video.  Additionally, among the big-name sponsors were AT&T, SAP, Interactive Intelligence, and – yes – netlogx!  Clearly, there is a ground-swell of enthusiasm behind the civic tech movement right here in central Indiana.

For all the excitement and energy, there is “the other side of the coin”. Teams participating in Indy Civic Hack Day used data pulled from .zip files. Is this sufficient for a one day event? Sure. However, a more permanent and sustainable way to provide the necessary data is needed to fuel this new ecosystem.

For the Indy Civic Hackathon, though, some great apps were created by talented developers and winners announced.  However, we must keep in mind that civic innovation isn’t just some programmers and data geeks locked away alone to create a new app.

While programmers and other techies are definitely needed to create new apps, many others are also needed to enable real improvement.  Civic tech also needs people who know public policy, government processes, design, project management, community organization, and many other pieces that will be all brought together to solve real problems rather than to just create technology for technology’s sake.

Ali Llewellyn said it far more eloquently than I can say

“The world doesn’t really need more hackathons – heaven knows we have enough of those. It doesn’t need people’s weekends to be filled up doing other people’s work or building things that won’t go anywhere. What it does need is an empowered citizenry who takes a stake in contributing to and participating in their democracy – and doing that together. It needs communities who come together and take responsibility to answer the questions that aren’t getting answered and address the challenges that don’t have easy solutions.”

Now, hackathons do have their place and a creative, well-designed app can be a game-changer for our community. However, the MOST important piece is that many different people come together for a common goal.  While only for a short time, we definitely saw that at the hackathon.  Now, Open Indy Brigade is taking on the task of keeping the momentum going throughout the year.