On Hackathons and Solutionism

This post is now available in portuguese thanks to Transparencia Hackday Portugal
Este post já está disponível em português por Transparência Hackday Portugal.

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.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you for putting into words the reservations I’ve felt about hackathons. I think one good use of a hackathon could be around a specific new technology, rather than around a cause. Enthusiasts and hobbyists (“innovators” in the technology adoption lifecycle) will often be the first to find the initial successful use of a new technology. Hackathons can be a good way to push a given technology from the “innovators” phase of the technology adoption lifecycle to the “early adopters” phase.

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  2. Just a quick, quiet ‘thumbs up’ for this. The hackathon culture, along with the we-must-all-have-a-national-data-store culture, are two aspects of the civic tech movement which really make me the most uneasy, and which I fear may actually be harmful in some cases.

    Somewhere along the line the true and important story that ‘you can now produce relatively amazing things in just a few hours’ has morphed into ‘we can actually solve all our problems with code hacked in a weeekend’. I don’t know who bent the message, but it’s a real shame it happened.

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  3. Like Bradley above, I also thank you for this post which addresses many of my reservations about “hackathons”, “camps” and, I have to say, at least the very title of “Desarrollando América Latina” (with accent or without accent…). Dessarrolando for what and for how long? There is indeed an interesting synergy (and irony) in the different uses of “development” and their implications.

    A key word I guess would be “sustainability”, and I suppose (not having read Morozov’s book) that “solutionism” would be an expression of this lack of drive, vision or even awareness of the urgent need to theorise, discuss, interrogate and ultimately attempt to tackle causes of problems (not matter what kind) before rushing into coding something that attempts to deal with immediate consequences and perhaps inavertently perpetuating it by taking it as a given and not as something in need to be changed at its roots and branches.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

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  4. Fantastic post David. I just one to add that I believe the building of communities of diverse groups focused on similar datasets must be around the “Theory of Change” or rather “Theories of Change” that apps and datasets allows us to dream of and after reaching a mininum consensus on how to produce social change, them plan concrete actions with a diverse set of stakeholders.

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  5. I also have reservations, and they are quite similar, but strangely they are about football matches, rather than hackathons. Perhaps I can phrase it thus -

    I’ve never been a huge fan of [football matches], but I do think there exist a set of specific conditions under which they can make sense. Ultimately, everything rests on your goal. What do you want to achieve?

    Perhaps you could replace football matches with app competitions – as indeed David Eaves does here http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/23146/app-contest-or-not-app-contest

    Maybe it’s actually not very productive to examine the utility of what others do at the weekend. Perhaps if we’re trying to make our societies better (aside – does anyone really examine the need of our civilisation other than Gods and ego-maniacs?) then perhaps before critiquing hackathons it might be worth examining what weekends are for? Should we really be giving people in developed countries two whole days a week to do whatever they like? This must have a huge societal cost, is not properly coordinated and seems to not have any very clearly defined objectives.

    Anyway, it’s the weekend, I’m not at a hackathon, so had better get outside, chop wood and feed livestock. Honestly, that’s what I’m going to do, because when I’m not hacking or working (for the government) I’m a peasant. It’s a great life and really does inform my hacking a great deal better than reading political texts, etc. ever could.

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  6. Really interesting post – thanks!

    I think there is a question about expectations surrounding hackathons – what are people realistically expecting to come out of a hackathon? Is it really likely that an application hacked together over a very short space of time is likely to be sustainable or “solve” a specific issue?

    My view is that the value relates more to the element of “bringing together diverse actors” to explore ideas and problems with a range of people each bringing their own perspectives and experiences. If hacking together some code to explore an idea helps in this exploration then great but I would not be going into this process expecting fully thought out sustainable apps as a result.

    Would shared learning and the exploration of new ideas which could contribute to the incremental development of more sustainable applications/processes in the future be a more valuable and realistic expectation? This then raises the question of how these events are documented? How do we build on what has been done before? How do encourage/incentivise the documentation of failure?

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  7. Great Post David, I do think however that the strongest value of these sort of Hackathons relies on building a network of civic engagement. Folks that could otherwise spend their coding time on video games (nothing wrong with that) or simply not coding outside office hours, start engaging in using their expertise in projects/efforts tied to public good.
    I agree with Tom that at some point we started to use a confusing language that somewhat suggests that efficient “solutions” are given, in a matter of hours, to complex social problems. That’s not right. What we do is sparkle a group of creative of ideas, some of which may be in the right track of finding a good answer to a policy problem, nothing more.
    A right track is of course not a solution it itself. Anything close to a solution will require good advice, research, entrepreneurship, and of course money !
    As you put it, it is yet to be proved how many of these apps succeed to survivor more than a year. Honestly, that’s not my biggest concern at this stage. I think this is a long term effort, and hackathons are only just being born, not as a particular “event” in itself (we have seen these for a couple of years), but as an exercise of deeper civics aiming to crunch solutions to public problems.
    For now I have no further expectations from Hackathons than: 1) get people in the room, make sure we build networks/communities of collaboration that exceeds the frame of a particular hack event; 2) showcase some good ideas, that “make the case” for civics and Government/civil society collaboration; 3)Make sure we help the best ideas to grow, and connect them with the right communities of practice and funding sources.

    That’s the track we will follow again next year with our 2013 version of http://www.desarrollandoamerica.org . Let’s see what happens.

    best

    Felipe

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  8. Technology is a tool. Focus on the sociology first, then the technology. Technology without community focus is nothing more than omphaloskepsis, despite the earnest “intent”

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  9. As a civic startup here in NYC, I too am surprised that the civic app ecosystem hasn’t taken root and I agree with your assessment that more Gov 2.0 acceleration programs are required.

    For Ontodia, we’re being incubated at the NYU-Poly Varick Incubator and I’m optimistic that with the creation of CUSP – the “Center for Urban Science and Progress” formalizing the “science of cities”, NYC is laying the foundation for “Gov 2.0 Alley”, much the same way Stanford University became the engine of Silicon Valley.

    One approach that I’ve advocated before is the concept of Cities creating microtasking portals and innovation bounties.

    As I mentioned in my comment to Matthew Hall’s post titled “Can Crowdfunding Kickstart Urbanism?” (http://www.shareable.net/blog/can-crowdfunding-kickstart-urbanism):

    “They should combine civic crowdfunding with micro-tasking. That is, cities have big IT backlogs and for microprojects of less than 5-10 thousand dollars, city governments should put it out for microtasking minus the expensive RFP/contractor process.

    This will seed the civic crowdfunding marketplace – while saving taxpayer money, engaging citizens, spurring economic activity, and growing the local tech community, all at the same time.

    Another idea is to have an innovation bounty. That is, if citizens find some innovation based on the Open Data published by the city, 5% of the savings realized by that insight/innovation goes back to the citizen/business who thunk up the idear and implemented a working prototype.

    And interested citizens and local businesses can kick in some additional funds for both micro-tasks and bounties.

    And unlike Kickstarter, citizens and local businesses can nominate their own micro tasks and bounties as well – so its not just people who want to do projects pitching.”

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