Tech and the City

City Hackathon Starting to Sound More Like a Typical RFP

When the city announced today it’s hosting a hackathon at General Assembly to “reimagine” its 1.0-esque website, Betabeat was picturing something like Music Hack Day or the Foursquare hackathon, where a bunch of scrappy, sweatshirted programmers jammed together some code over the weekend for funsies–you know, like in the picture the mayor’s office is using to promote the event. Oops. We should have read the rules.

The city is requiring that hackers submit portfolios in advance and be selected to participate based on the following criteria:

Usability – Does the Contestant’s portfolio consistently display expertise in navigation, usability and the most current design and functionality conventions?

Experience – Has the Contestant designed at least one website that serves over 1 million visitors a month? Does the Contestant have the needed technology expertise? Is the Contestant affiliated with a recognized design firm?

Aesthetic/Technology (designer/developer) – Does the Contestant’s portfolio
demonstrate work that is modern, current, elegant, and user-centric?

Scope – Does the Contestant’s portfolio demonstrate a versatile, flexible skillset and
range of websites with varying purposes?

Experience–“over 1 million visitors a month”–counts for one fourth the criteria? Sounds like the city has an agency bias.

“This ‘hackathon’ is basically already designed to only benefit certain companies (‘recognized design firms’) and allow certain people to compete. They’re not really tapping the talent of the city at all or really being open in any way; if anything, they’re creating a no bid process for giant design firms in the city to compete with each other to create designs for no pay,” local developer Mike Caprio said in an email.

We asked Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne to clarify, and she sent the following response:

- We are not in any way committing to hire the winner. The City is simply not allowed to enter into contracts that way. This is meant to be a first step for the City to start holding hackathons that encourage participation and openness.

- Regarding “experience” – We have to acknowledge that we may be aware of an affiliation with a design firm. That is all. We encourage both individuals and firms. We also appreciate that there is a certain amount of expertise that comes from building a UX that serves millions. But this is just one of several criteria, and not a requirement.

- In general, regarding the terms, as a government entity, we operate differently than a private company, so our legal requirements in sponsoring an event like a hackathon demand that we draw up such legal terms. We need to both innovate and meet all legal obligations, and I hope the public understands that we need to successfully satisfy both demands. This is new territory for government, and our legal team has been working hard to help us move forward.

Last additional point on the agency question– the hackathon format empowers individual designers and developers by providing a platform for them to present their talents directly to City stakeholders.

Guess we’ll find out when the city picks its hackers. Submissions are being evaluated on a rolling basis.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com