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I spent much more of my weekend than I had expected reviewing the 22 finalist apps from Desarrollando America Latina, the region’s largest annual hackathon. (You can see the three winners and honorable mention in this blog post by event coordinator Anca Matioc.)

I spent the rest of the weekend reading Evgeny Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here. Evgeny criticizes the rise of ‘solutionism,’ which he defines by quoting Michael Dobbins: “Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.”

Nowhere, it seems to me, is solutionism in fuller force than at hackathons and app contests. Without contemplating the origins, causes, and effects of the social problems they seek to remedy, these two- or three-day events bring together designers and software developers to “hack” together elegant solutions to complex problems.

For example, in the category of “climate change,” we find the Brazilian project, Seu Lixo, or “The Trash.” The application uses public data from Brazil’s statistics institute that reveal waste removal per major city. By scraping that information and comparing it with population statistics from the latest census, the programmers behind “The Trash” are able to attractively display the kilograms of trash collected, on average, per person per day in Brazil’s major cities. We learn that in Fortaleza, a northeastern costal city of just over 2 million, the average resident throws away just over one kilogram of trash per day while in Belo Horizonte, often called “Brazil’s Silicon Valley,” they average resident throws away more than twice her counterpart in Fortaleza. And in Goiânia, home to a famous radioactive contamination accident in 1987, residents throw away nearly three times the amount of trash as their fellow citizens in Fortaleza.

The comparison is interesting, of course, but it leaves us asking, why? What are the policies and practices that explain such a wide discrepancy? Is progress being made? What can be done to reduce trash disposal and increase recycling? What are the politics behind the policies? Are certain actors holding up important legislative reforms? Are their entrepreneurs like the Peruvian Albina Ruiz who have developed sustainable community-based waste management systems? Are such projects replicable? With enough research we find that in 2009 Brazil’s National Development Bank created a $125 million credit to support recycling and waste removal cooperatives in five major cities. Yet I wasn’t able to find any website that documents how that many was disbursed or what the effects have been.

The inherent ‘solutionism’ of hackathons and app contests has contributed in part to a rising wave of criticism against the model. David Eaves published a balanced account of the debate a couple of weeks ago at WeGov, pointing us to another thoughtful analysis by Alex Howard when a similar debate arose a year ago. Antti Poilkola has compiled an open list of app contests (most of them European) and has started a survey and mailing list to discuss how the model can be improved.

One idea that seems to be gaining currency is to spend less time developing new applications that never seem to reach scale, and more time building communities around certain data sets. One example of such a dataset, writes David Eaves, is the United State Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which tracks pollution from industrial facilities across the country. A friend of mine at the Environmental Integrity Project uses this data to work with industry to help them invest in new technologies that reduce their contamination (not to mention save them money in the long term). And when they refuse to, he advocates to the EPA that they are sanctioned.

Arduino leyenda

I’m thrilled that a team of Peruvian developers has developed an Arduino-based environmental sensor that can monitor UV radiation, humidity, temperature, and particulate matter. But will the data hold up in a court case when environmental activists sue industrial contaminators? And if not, then why collect the data at all?

Bringing together diverse actors — including private sector, public sector, activists and technologists — to make sure that there is a purpose behind the data is the model of the “datapalooza,” which White House CTO Todd Park has been evangelizing for the past couple years. The starting assumption isn’t that there is an app or gadget that can fix complex social problems, but rather that there is value in bringing together diverse actors to contemplate the stories and social issues that lie out of plain sight in large datasets.

Reaching Scale

What stood out the most reviewing the 22 finalist apps of Desarrollando America Latina is how much time and energy the teams put into their development. They weren’t doing this difficult work for cash; it was all done in the spirit of civics and contributing to one’s community. It’s truly astonishing to see what these teams were able to develop in such short time. The optimist in me hopes that at least two or three of them will have a lifespan of more than a year, but the realist in me knows that this is not likely. I have judged over a dozen app contests and I can’t recall a single winning app that I use today.

In fact, as Tom Steinberg reminds us in a recent plea for partisan technologists to join the non-partisan civic tech movement, there probably aren’t any civic apps that have yet reached scale. Not a day goes by that I don’t use Instapaper, Dropbox, Foursquare, Twitter, Things, Simplenote, Goodreader, and Spotify. And at least once a month I use Tripit, Instagram, Trip Advisor, Airbnb, Nike+, and Evernote. But, depressingly, I can’t think of a single civic app that I use on a weekly or even monthly basis to be in closer touch with my government.

To attempt to explain why the civic app sector has yet to reach scale is the topic of another blog post, but I’m willing to assert that it’s not for a lack of hackathons and app contests. There is no shortage of prototypes; rather there are few willing investors to support the hard part of their development, and there are few projects that have done serious market research on the needs of their users.

As someone whose job it is to support the scaling up of such apps and platforms, in the future I hope to see more acceleration programs, such as the Code for America Accelerator, that help early stage apps grow rapidly, and more events that build communities of diverse groups focused on similar datasets.