Indy Idea Hub’s Three-Month Hackathon Will Help Modernize Government

It’s no secret that government entities and municipalities generate reams of data but often struggle when it comes to sharing all that information with the public in an easily digestible fashion. Matthew Kirby said that’s sometimes an even bigger problem for post-industrial cities like Indianapolis that are trying to rebrand as exciting, tech-enabled communities for young professionals.

“To me, it’s a huge talent attraction issue,” said Kirby, the co-founder of the Open Indy Brigade, an advocacy organization promoting public data and open source technology. “Indianapolis can’t say it’s trying to attract top tech talent with public-facing websites that look like they’re from the ’90s. If millennials’ interaction with government involves file cabinets and paper copies, that doesn’t reflect the brand of the city very well. Millennials want to conduct business over their iPhones, but there’s a huge technology gap between the private sector and government.”

The conflicted municipal branding Kirby described is a challenge many Midwestern cities face. The answer, Kirby believes, starts with efforts like the Indy Idea Hub, an extended, collaborative hackathon that will allow project teams to develop and pitch technological solutions to civic challenges over a three-month period.

Kirby said he first became acquainted with the concept of hackathons while he was working in economic development for the city of Indianapolis a few years ago. “A couple of startup guys approached me about hackathons as a cool, entrepreneurial approach to stale economic development programming,” he said.

At the same time, Kirby noticed a “groundswell of interest” in open data taking root across the country. That got him thinking.

“There’s a huge Salesforce talent pool here; we’ve got Angie’s List, Interactive Intelligence, and Eli Lilly,” Kirby pointed out. “You’ve got a lot of businesses with younger workers, and state and local government employees all located within a mile of downtown, but they’re miles apart culturally. We needed to start to pull those universes together.”

He and a group of co-founders formed Open Indy Brigade last year with the city as a hub for those interested in the use of public data and open-source technology to better inform and engage residents of Central Indiana. The hope, Kirby said, is that the collaborative organization, which is also a chapter of the Code for America Brigade, would help nurture innovation and attract the next generation of entrepreneurs to the state. (Code for America supports Brigade chapters with resources, tools, and access to players in the wider civic technology movement.)

Kirby said the Open Indy Brigade has been going “90 miles an hour” for the past year, hosting several hackathons. “We’ve gone from no activity to something cool happening every month,” he said.

So far, the hackathons have explored a variety of topics, including public safety data, transportation data, and the Internet of Things. The hackathons were a lot of fun, but Kirby realized that their ephemeral nature—hackathons typically last 24 or 48 hours—meant that it was hard to sustain long-term civic engagement. And while the hackathons were surprisingly popular, drawing elected officials, policymakers, and techies and non-techies alike, there wasn’t a “good win list” of projects that went on to be used by the general public.

“We’d come together and surface great ideas involving data or new technologies,” Kirby explained. “But the momentum would be lost after the weekend was over. I thought, ‘How do we do longer, collaborative projects?’ If we’re really going to have an impact in Indiana, we have to push the government into the 21st century.”

The Indy Idea Hub was created in response. After spending a few months collecting potential project ideas, the Open Indy Brigade selected three of the best concepts to further develop as part of the inaugural group of Indy Idea Hub projects. They are a crime-mapping tool, a new Indy Idea Hub Web page to better solicit ideas and connect teams, and a “stuff I want to know” website where people can go to find answers to public information questions.

Over the next three months, volunteer teams with diverse skill sets will work together to take these projects from the concept stage to a minimally viable product. The idea, Kirby said, is for these “foundational” projects to lead to additional collaborations.

Kirby said the matchmaking process is underway now. Each volunteer team gets a project leader, technical leader, and subject matter expert, and it falls on the project leader to determine what the team can bite off in three months. In November, the Indy Idea Hub teams plan to reveal what they’ve created so far, along with where the organization sees the projects going in the future. Due to the large amount of community interest so far, Kirby said there will be 10-15 people on each team.

“We hope this takes us from being an event-driven organization to one that creates solutions that go places,” he added. “It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem—the community wants 21st century tools, but we’re dealing with local and state governments that are behind technologically. That cultural change won’t happen overnight.”

Kirby recalls that when he organized his first civic hackathon two years ago, he went around to the various city departments requesting their data and they looked at him “like I was nuts.” Today, Indianapolis has an open data portal, which went live in May. Kirby said he’s optimistic that municipal agencies will only become more transparent as the value of open data is better understood.

“Most agencies believe making data available is dangerous,” he said. “That’s their job, to protect that information. But there has to be a push for transparency, along with privacy and security. How do you exhibit the return on investment for non-tech people? That’s why we’re doing this. We’re trying to create solutions using the little bit of data we have, and then we can show that and say, ‘If this is what we’re able to do with the little information we have, imagine what we could do with more.’ It’s an ongoing campaign to educate elected officials.”

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