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An alternative to the hackathon

Friday, December 12, 2014

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

By now most are familiar with the concept of an open data hackathon: jam people and data together into a small space for a short time and ask them to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and/or publish analyses (often by providing a monetary reward as an incentive). This has been the model for a long time now and at the height of its hype its merits were debated extensively online. I'm not really interested in re-hashing the debate, but if you want some context you can go read the following from a few years back (and everything those pieces link to):


What I am interested in is fleshing out why we need an alternative approach, how that approach could be structured and what it could mean to the big picture.

Hackathons produce apps, not solutions to wicked problems

A bus tracking app is great at helping me leave the office just at the right minute to catch my bus, but it's completely ineffective at solving the gridlock that hamstrings the bus as soon as I board it.

A health tracking app may help me eat better and exercise more but does little to address the looming healthcare crisis in this country (See: Impossible Conversations: A Review of Chronic Condition by Jeffrey Simpson)

In short, apps address downstream problems facing individuals that are generally easy to deal with. Ought we not be digging in a little deeper, thinking upstream, and investing our effort into solving problems at the macro rather than treating their symptoms at the micro?

Refocusing on wicked problems

Maybe we ought to engage our best and brightest from academic institutions, the public and private sectors and create teams of cross functional experts to gather, crunch and analyse the data.

Maybe we shouldn't ask them to build a minimum viable product in a weekend but rather give them the time required for them to conduct a thoughtful analysis of the status quo, a desired future state, and options on how to get us there (See: Enduring Ideas: The Three Horizons of Growth from McKinsey).

Maybe then we can sit down, have the hard conversations, weigh the evidence and options and chart a coherent way forward.

The wicked impact of solving (or even mitigating) wicked problems

I have no evidence to support this claim so feel free to take me task on it, but I get the sense that solving (or even mitigating) a wicked problem in society will always yield better returns to society at the macro than any app ever could.

I could go down a long tangent on how I think the focus on apps (to the detriment of research) is a by-product of our shortened shadow of the future, our culture of immediacy and the omnipresence of attention economy, but I'll spare you the diatribe for the moment.

What I will say is that I think we need to spend less time scrolling up with our thumbs and more time leaning in with our shoulders.