Geeks, Coders, Hackers, Developers, Computer Scientists, Technologists- whichever term you choose, people with technical acumen have proven to be some of the most prolific volunteers for social good. It is not hyperbole to state that on any given weekend, in nearly every major city around the world, volunteers can be found gathering together to create products that benefit education, security, economic, and other social interests. Participants cobble together the vision, team, the code, and the experts over 48 hours, and present themselves for judging by Sunday evening. These gatherings are dubbed “hackathons,” “codeathons” or “codesprints” and they have found success: out of the Disrupt Hackathon, which is hosted by TechCrunch and connects developers and entrepreneurs, the Docracy team formed to make legal and business documents more free and accessible, and went on to raise $650,000 over the next year to expand its operations. StartupWeekend, a hackathon targeting entrepreneurs, claims hundreds of new startups including Reddit, a widely popular user-generated news aggregator. In 2010, the State Department and iHub launched the Apps4Africa challenge to connect local developers and global mentors to local NGOs to learn and solve local problems. The winner, iCow, is a successful mobile-phone application that tracks cows’ hormone cycles to inform better breeding, milk production, and nutrition information to Kenyan dairy farmers.
If you’re not familiar with the hackathon model, you’re not alone. Government engagement with the tech community, though expanding, is limited. And though hackathons bring together widely diverse communities to contribute their time and expertise to solve problems, they are not a flawless solution. Rare is the startup that can convene and be commercially viable in 48 hours. To increase the impact of the products of these hackathons, and ensure that those volunteering their time are doing so wisely, we have to improve on the existing model.
Enter White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and his bold concept for public sector improvement of the hackathon model to connect developers directly to the people who will ultimately use their product, and to incubate solutions to be attractive to investors. Under his model, weekend sessions are stretched across at least ninety days and buttress the hackathon with brainstorming and planning session weeks prior and an incubation period of the successful products for weeks following. He outlines this model as an endeavor of the White House’s “Open Data Initiative” and, following on the successful implementation at HHS, has taken it to various other agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, and USAID. Through his leadership, each agency has taken up the mantle of instituting their own open data initiatives.
USAID is building its first data initiative around food security, and I encourage anyone who is curious to get involved. All backgrounds and interests are welcome; participants need not be an expert in food security nor in software, a willingness to contribute to the efforts of innovative solutions and commercially viable products is all that’s required. Writers, designers, networkers, and creative thinkers from all walks are welcome. As access to information increases globally, so does the potential for innovation and great ideas to be borne and fomented across borders. USAID is convening a global community to engage more directly with those who are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to the cause of development, and who want to work together to “hack” new and creative solutions to long-standing development priorities. Just yesterday, Secretary Clinton observed “Data not only measures progress, it inspires it.” At USAID we want to build and support the platform for those who are inspired to create and sustain lasting progress.
For more information and to participate, visit agrilinks.org/openagdata and contact OpenAgData@USAID.Gov