Four Ways Summer of Smart has Reinvented Civic Hackathons

Personal Democracy Forum‘s TechPresident recently published a post on the drawbacks of “civic hackathons” – weekends where, generally, developers and designers set out to solve city problems through coding and rapid prototyping in the course of 48 hours or less. This post, from TechPresident Associate Editor Nick Judd, was followed up by a very well-written article from Alex Howard of O’Reilly Radar highlighting the importance of realizing sustainability, community, and civic value beyond a single weekend of hacking and prototyping civic solutions.

Here at GAFFTA, after organizing community hackathons for several years around civic and technological issues, we faced many of the same issues experienced with the hackathon model worldwide – it was difficult to make the incredible energy, momentum, ideas, and teams last for long beyond the initial weekend of hacking and creating. When we envisioned Summer of Smart – an initiative of three hackathons, two mayoral forums, an unconference, and an event series around tech-based civic engagement – hackathon organizers we spoke with from around the country were essentially headed back to the drawing board for how to leverage the tech community’s skills and passion to rapidly address social issues. We knew we would have to try something completely different than we had done in the past – effectively, an experiment – to push the boundaries of what a hackthon can be and create.

Here are four things we decided to do differently, and the underlying principles that drove those decisions:

Invite everyone. (Hackathons should be diverse and inclusive.)

Our first decision was to completely open up our summer series of events as the first-ever “hackathons for everyone”. We even strayed from calling them “hackthons”, choosing “Urban Innovation Weekends” instead to make a wider audience feel welcome. The result was that we’ve ended up with only about 30-50% developers and designers, and the rest an incredibly diverse group of city officials, artists, architects, journalists, roboticists, scientists, videographers, urban farmers, community organizers, MPH’s, MBA’s, and more which complement technical skill sets with invaluable hands-on experience in various fields. We’ve found that the best solutions arise from multidisciplinary teams where new ideas abound and where user research is effectively embedded into the fabric of each project from the start. A quick show of hands at our first event suggested that at least half of the participants had never been to a hackathon before – and this form of innovation should be open and accessible to anyone and everyone. (See our post Who Comes to a Hackathon for Everyone for more details.)

Don’t go it alone. (Hackathons should build, and be built by, lasting partnerships.)

From Day One, we focused on engaging as many relevant organizations as possible, doing far more outreach and collaboration than any of our past hackathons. The final list represents incredible organizations at the intersection of government, technology, social change, media, community engagement, and more, and includes the likes of Code for AmericaChange.orgGovFresh, SPUR, and many others.

Additionally, one of our goals was to bring the hackathon mentality directly to government – and we’ve had incredible engagement throughout the summer. We’ve had direct participation from SF Dept. of TechnologyMayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce DevelopmentSF Environment, SF MTA, Dept. of Public WorksDept. of Public HealthOffice of the City Administrator, and more. Several of these departments are partnering with hackathon teams on an ongoing basis to further realize their projects.

California Lt. Governor and former SF Mayor Gavin Newsom stopped by, and we’ve had the benefit of engaging with the current SF mayoral race directly, with several candidates coming in to talk directly with project teams as they worked. This level of participation has grounded all the participants in the real civic value of their work, and has been reinforced by the enthusiasm of the candidates (leading one to call for regular civic hackathons if elected).

Don’t (just) offer cash prizes. (Hackathons should build a community.)

We have seen dozens of apps contents and hackathons where it’s assumed that a few thousand dollars of incentive as a prize will help seed the projects and produce innovation. But as many have found, this model simply isn’t effective – and there is a clear reason why: civic hackers are driven not by money, but by the potential of their work to create civic and social change. (At our first weekend, we actually had to convince the crowd that any prizes should be offered at all, because they were so inspired by each others’ work!) This is why we decided to offer a slew of non-cash prizes instead that focus on project sustainability:

  • Months-long residencies in our Research Program to take the projects to the next level, in partnership with city departments and others
  • In-kind development and design support (via Exygy) to jump-start deployment
  • Exclusive writeups in local publications (via The Bay Citizen)
  • The opportunity to present ideas directly to all of San Francisco’s mayoral candidates for their feedback at our public forum in October on 21st century civic engagement.
  • And we’re working with the City of SF toward the ability to offer an official city contract as an additional incentive in the near future.

These prizes are designed to highlight not just what was accomplished in a weekend, but to press forward with realistic steps to create lasting projects. Which highlights our last decision…

Plan for the future. (Hackathons should create sustainable, impactful projects.)

Hackathons should envision a timeline of two years, not two days. TechPresident’s post put it this way: “…in order for those great ideas to emerge, hackathons must be the beginning of a partnership, not the end.” It is crucial to create an environment where teams understand that while the best innovation happens with a rapid timeline, real impact happens over a longer timeframe. We aimed to do this through the points highlighted above – diversity, partnerships, broader city participation, and prizes built for sustainability – and by consistently instilling the belief that this was the weekend was the start of something much larger.

In addition, the details of our Research Program at GAFFTA actually emerged directly from the desire to harness hackathon-inspired energy over a longer time period. There are plenty of start-up incubators in major cities, but far fewer (if any) nonprofit incubators for creative community- and civic-oriented projects. By offering teams ongoing support, organizational connections and partnerships, nonprofit fiscal sponsorship and fundraising assistance, collective workspace, and small stipends, we hope to become a haven for multidisciplinary teams to contribute through this new form of direct civic engagement.

As we reflect on the 23 incredible projects created and consider how to apply the lessons and model of Summer of Smart elsewhere, my personal dream has become to have President Obama attend a hackathon in the next year. Only by speaking directly with diverse, grassroots teams at the forefront of civic innovation will government be able to truly understand what is possible in 48 hours – and how that indescribable energy and passion of a hackathon weekend can be leveraged over a longer timeframe to create real change across America.

Jake Levitas is Research Director at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. Follow him at @CivicInnovation.

Building Online Communities to Improve Public Health

Quantified Self
Today, one in every three adults is considered obese, roughly 33.8% of the U.S. adult population. Obese children consist of 17% (or 12.5 million), from the ages of 2-19 years old. [Data from the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES)]. These are staggering numbers that continue to climb unless we find solutions: collaborating, collecting and sharing overall health awareness. Two organizations currently leading the way and guiding communities towards cures for some of these life-threatening problems in health and nutrition are Health 2.0 and Quantified Self.

Health 2.0 and Quantified Self are building communities online, collecting people from all over the world who are passionate about health and improving lifestyles, overall wellness, as well as individual monitoring. Health 2.0 acts as a news source, television outlet and forum where people can share their knowledge, ideas and concerns. As a leading innovative health community, this site acts as a great location for interesting news pieces and video, as well as current challenges plaguing the health world today.

Quantified Self is an online news source as well, rich with ideas on self improvement and self health. Focusing more on the human body and personal awareness of the individual self (through the use of apps and technology), Quantified Self builds projects that improve the future for individuals such as the following:
  • wearable sensors
  • open source ECG monitors
  • “collecting silence”
  • designing patient-facing clinical information
  • mobile psychological sampling
  • life hacking
  • mood/location mashups

Health and nutritional communities online, like Health 2.0 and Quantified Self, inspire others to become knowledgeable about nutrition, the body, exercise and activities that will help make cultures around the world healthier. Through sharing tools, apps and projects online, communities like these can reach solutions to the problems of obesity and unhealthy living. By self-tracking resources, encouraging collaboration, and innovating self-tracking technologies and apps, experts and beginners can begin to change lives and lead better futures for our aging bodies.

Dana Loberg is a writer, social media adviser, and Founder of Everything Social Now.

Urban Innovation Weekend 3: Public Health, Food, Nutrition, and Urban Agriculture

Join us for the third of three Urban Innovation Weekends as part of the Summer of Smart, with 48 hours of rapid civic prototyping and keynotes from Ann Veneman, Esther Dyson, and Dr. Jordan Shlain.

Take an idea to change the city as far as you can in 48 hours. Then bring your prototype to government and make it a reality. Welcome to Democracy 3.0.

A hackathon for everyone…where your work will be seen by the next mayor, and you can win a research residency, present to nine mayoral candidates, and other prizes!

The best solutions always emerge from diverse minds coming together to solve common problems. That’s why we’re inviting the Bay Area’s best urbanists, artists, journalists, scientists, communicators, business and civic minds, and more to join leading developers and designers in prototyping and building ways to improve life for all citizens of San Francisco – and eventually, beyond. (Who Should Attend) List your skillsets and areas of expertise in your registration, and check out what types of people you’ll be working with in the attendee list.


Read More

Second Summer of Smart Hackathon Tackles Buildings, Transportation and Sustainability

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces


Building data. It’s a small thing, but what if the buildings where we live, work and play were able to show us how they work? How much energy they use, what their carbon footprint is, how they compare to the building next door? Building data. It’s also a huge thing, a salvo in the data revolution that rages across the U.S. and brings the hope of transparent, agile and accountable government.

San Francisco has always been a proving ground for small ideas that blow up to impact the American landscape in ways no one could have predicted, from the hippies in the 1960s to the tech boom that is still ongoing. The current movement is challenging coders, data artists, designers and makers to find, create and illuminate available data to build apps, widgets and games to make the city better — to use civic hackathons to create experiments that have the potential to change the face of city government.

Read More

Community Wi-Fi Symposium


Date: Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
Times: 6pm – 8pm
Location: GAFFTA, 998 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94131


Join us August 10th for a symposium on Community Wi-Fi as part of the Summer of Smart, an initiative of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts(@GAFFTA) in partnership with San Francisco Department of Technology, Code for America, SPUR, The Bay Citizen,, GovFresh, Shareable, and many others! We’ll hear from thought leaders and launch a volunteer effort to build a free community wifi network in Mid-Market.

The symposium will have several speakers including a keynote address by Josh King, Technical Lead for the New America Foundation Open Technology Initiative. The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative (OTI) proposes to build a new type of tool for democratic organizing: an open source “device-as-infrastructure” distributed communications platform that integrates users’ existing cell phones, Wi-Fi-enabled computers, and other WiFi-capable personal devices to create a metro-scale peer-to-peer (mesh) communications network.
Prototyping a Community Wi-Fi Network

After hearing from community Wi-Fi speakers, a team will be formed to create a free wifi network in the Tenderloin and around Mid-Market. The team will use San Francisco’s 1 GB community broadband network and low cost wireless hardware to expand access. We will present our work directly to all nine major mayoral candidates at our final public forum in October. Our goal is to establish a new paradigm where the community co-creates the network with local government.

6-7: Drinks and networking
7-7:15: Community speakers: Ralf Muehlen (Internet Archive), Tim Pozar and more TBA.
7:15-7:30: Keynote speaker: Josh King
7:30-8:00 Introductions, icebreakers, idea-sharing, and team formation

Feel free to bring your questions, ideas, and research to the open discussion that will ensue after the presentations.

Keynote Speaker:

As a Technical Lead for the Open Technology Initiative at New America Foundation, Joshua King draws on his years of experience performing technology work at non-profit organizations to develop and implement free and open source software and hardware, keep abreast of emerging technologies and related initiatives throughout the world, evaluate and interpret a wide range of published information on future trends for telecommunications and media, and support the research infrastructure of an open Internet.
Before joining New America, Mr. King was a Systems Engineer for OJC Technologies. He served as an Americorps VISTA Leader and was an engineer and board member for both the CUWiN Foundation and Acorn Active Media Foundation. Mr. King volunteered as a lead technology worker within the Indymedia movement in Central Illinois.