From the Good Ideas (and Work At It) File: Hackathon Learning from Latin America

When I queued this article by Susannah Vila to Engaging Cities a week or so ago, I knew it also needed to end up in the Good Ideas file.  Even if you’re not doing civic hacking in your community, anything that you’re doing to pull in a broad cross-section of participation (the way you gotta do it if you want a Local Economy Revolution), leaves you at risk of a pile of good-intention-no-follow-though.  Unfinished apps give the same basic impression as unrealized plans or vacant lots:

we tried

we failed

we gave up.

Not exactly what we need to be projecting.

This has been a bit of a problem in the world of civic hacking and open data advancement – the emphasis on lightning weekend events to get people engaged in trying to solve community issues through technology can tend to result in a lot of half-built half-solutions… and since they are usually built on an open data platform, in an open data context, they don’t just vanish.  That’s not all a bad thing — having those elements out there in the internetz gives other civic hackers some completed modules to work with, and what got abandoned after one community’s hackathon can easily end up providing the solution somewhere else.  But… communities sometimes lose the opportunity to benefit from a Great Idea simply because there was no structure in place to make sure the thing that was developed met a real need, and no one followed up.

This excellent article outlines some concerted efforts to make sure that those good ideas don’t go to local waste — and the key includes local collaboration from the start:


At first blush, Mi Primer Trabajo might sound like something you’ve seen a million times before. Conciliador Virtual may strike you as unrealistic – how would you train all those adjudicators to work online? Wouldn’t this have to be pushed from within Brazilian bureaucracy? However, 2013’s winners stand out for two reasons. The first is that they were conceived of and developed in conjunction with stakeholders from NGOs and government. Recudida is already running programs that benefit their app’s main audience; The Brazilian Ministry of Justice is already working with Concilador Virtual. Two, winning contestants will have been working on their projects for a total of a year. That’s a lot more time than a weekend, and it makes for more opportunity to collect feedback, to build strong relationships with people who are important for the product’s success, and to get so committed to a piece of software that you won’t let it fall into the software application graveyard with all the other app prototypes that were created during hackathons.

Relationships with people.  Whether it’s an app or a playground or a shopping district, that’s what makes the difference between something that thrives, and detrius.

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