White House, NASA Celebrate National Day of Hacking

by Klint Finley (courtesy wired)

A glimpse of Super Happy Block Party Hackathon, the predecessor to the National Day of Civic Hacking. Photo: Ferdinand Casido/ Flickr

The White House is hosting a hackathon dedicated to government data.
It happens this weekend, and it’s just one of the 93 hackathons organized across the U.S. as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, a.k.a. June 3. During the two-day event, participants will work to build software applications that solve problems proposed by local, state and federal government organizations. The data sets and challenges were provided by 22 government organizations in total, including the White House, NASA, and the Peace Corps.

“It is an incredible feat that we have so many government agencies making data available. This is the largest ever collaboration across government agencies,” says Celestine Johnson of Innovation Endeavors. Innovation Endeavors — a venture capital firm founded by Dror Berman and Google chairman Eric Schmidt — organized the event with the non-profit organizations Code for America and Random Hacks of Kindness.


It all started with an Innovation Endeavors event called Super Happy Block Party Hackathon in Palo Alto last year, Johnson explains. The event was deemed a success, and hackathon organizers in other cities kept asking Innovation Endeavors for advice for running their own events, so the team decided to try to expand the event. They began by getting in touch with NASA open innovation program manager Nick Skytland, brought in the White House. Then the White House brought in Code for America and Intel, one of the events sponsors. Soon, it was a massive nationwide event.

It’s part of an ongoing effort to take hold of the mountains of data that government agencies collect and turn them into something that can provide more value to communities — and keep agencies honest. Earlier this month, for example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a data set detailing the fees charged for common procedures to Medicare by 3,337 hospitals. Although the release prompted Providence Health & Services in Anchorage, Alaska to review their fees, observers don’t expect much immediate impact. It’s a harsh reminder that transparency doesn’t not always lead to accountability.

Other difficulties hackathon projects face include real world adoption of the apps created, as long as maintenance of apps and data sets. “One of the big challenges for a hackathon is the sustainability of an application,” says Bryan Sivak, CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “How do we get people to continue working on these things?”

Still, Sivak is enthusiastic about the potential of open government and hackathons. “We have a lot of people who work at the Health and Human Services, but we want allow people who don’t work there to take advantage of all the data that we have,” he says.

Thank you. TiA.


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