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Louisville uses hackathons to drive community-led innovation

The city is taking a page from the tech world, organizing collaborative challenges to tackle everything from fire prevention to the digital divide.

PodcastCitizen Engagement

Louisville, KY

United States

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Local governments are always looking for ways to engage citizens.
Some are putting new spins on old tactics, such as digital town halls and answering residents’ questions via bots. Others are experimenting with approaches that are relatively new to the public sector — producing podcasts, using data visualization to get budget input, and applying tools from other sectors to government problems.
Hackathons are one such tool. They’ve been a longtime favorite in the tech world, and now cities, towns, and counties are embracing them as a way to bring outsiders into the government process.
Louisville, Kentucky has been an especially strong proponent of this technique. Over the past five years, the city has used hackathons to innovate across everything from fire prevention to the availability of cell phone chargers. Along the way they’ve created new products and helped drive an innovative approach to urban planning that puts the community front and center.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with administrators in Louisville's Information Technology department to learn how they use hackathons to solve local problems.

Why Hackathons?

A hackathon is a collaborative effort to quickly identify and solve a problem, usually taking place in a defined amount of time at an event. The practice comes from the technology space, and typically consists of developers, designers, project managers and others coming together to identify an issue, then design and develop a solution — often an app, product or piece of software.
At the end of the hackathon, each team presents their solution to a panel of judges or stakeholders. A winner, or winners are determined; often these teams receive funding or support to continue developing their tool into a formal product or service.
So how did this scrappy tech approach end up in Louisville’s toolkit for local urban and economic development? Ed Blayney, Civic Technology Manager in Louisville, says it started with the mayor, Greg Fischer.

"He comes from an entrepreneurial background and really wanted to bring new business ideas into government. Hackathons were one of those buzzwords when he was getting started as mayor. So he wanted to bring that iterative, agile thinking into government.”
Louisville hosted its first hackathon in 2015 with the goal of reducing fires in abandoned buildings. The “Holy Smokes” hackathon led to the development of the city’s well-known CASPER technology (Completely Autonomous Solar-Powered Event Responder), a wireless device that is placed in vacant homes, where it listens for the sound of smoke detectors and sends SMS messages to notify the City of Louisville of a potential fire. This simple technology has helped solve major public safety concerns.
Since then, the city has hosted a number of hackathons focusing on community problems, like making cell phone charging stations more widely available, to internal hackathons to streamline government processes.
Louisville isn’t the only locality leaning on the tactic. In Canada, Innisfil held a hackathon to solve problems created by recent public health and economic crises. Vancouver, BC hosted a hackathon to try solve its traffic issues. The result was a virtual reality game that collected traffic data, as well as an app to promote school safety.
One of the best things about hackathons, from a local government perspective, is that not only do they create some quick and innovative solutions, they bring the community in to do so.
“Hackathons are community, collaborative problem solving. It’s something that we do regularly, and we’ve been getting better at it over the years.”

How to run a successful Hackathon

Over the years, Blayney has developed a number of tips for running a successful hackathon:

Define a problem statement

This is the starting point — defining a problem for teams to focus on solving helps teams focus. A problem statement can be as specific as you’d like. Louisville’s Holy Smokes hackathon started with this:
“A Hackathon for you to create a working wifi enabled smoke detector prototype that will alert someone or something that smoke has been detected. No electricity will be provided at the final location for the prototype. Battery packs, solar panels, etc. will have to be used to provide power to the units. Three representatives from the fire safety and emergency management industry will judge the best prototypes.”
Sometimes, problem statements are a little more vague. For example, when Vancouver hosted its Decode Congestion hackathon, the problem statement was:
Using data and information provided by the City, participants will have the opportunity to develop and present their solutions that focus on one of five key areas:
--Improve monitoring of traffic conditions and trends
--Improve road safety
--Ensure a smart and efficient transportation system
--Coordinate street use
--Prioritize people and goods movement

Set parameters, but don’t be too prescriptive

Blayney says the guidelines shouldn’t be as specific as an RFP (you don't want to stifle creative thinking), but outlining some general guidelines is helpful, such as ‘It should be something that doesn’t need to be plugged into a wall,’ or ‘It needs to be able to communicate.’ Says Blayney:
“Those basic things set good boundaries while allowing for a variety of ideas, but also making sure it has the core functionality you need for it to be a successful product.”

Find a partner

Finding a partner is critical to get people to participate; this makes the ideas stronger and creates community buy-in. Louisville partners with local groups that may have an interest in solving the problem at hand, or who may bring in more people. Says Blayney:
“It helps build up those organizations, some of your blind spots get filled in, whether that’s around the technical or the cultural challenges, and it gets more people in the door.”

Bring resources to the table

While some smaller collaborative engagements, like an Open Data Day, may be free, to really be legitimate, local governments have to invest money, says Blayney:
“We contribute resources to many hackathons. In a perfect world, you would partner with a group, and pay them either to organize the event, or for food, etc.”
Smaller events may cost a few hundred dollars; larger events can be a few thousand dollars. Occasionally there’s a prize for participants, though Blayney says a better approach is to find funding to make the winning solution a viable product:
“I think prize money matters less than having funding to make it real, whether with a startup or established company that takes it to the next step.”

Follow up

A hackathon may only be a day or two, but the change that it drives is a long term commitment. Says Blayney:
“Government innovation is all about the grind.”
If you don’t stop, you get where you should be.

Louisville’s IT approach to urban planning

This dedication to progress is present beyond hackathons in Louisville. These events are part of a larger strategy that the city embraces, putting a technology lens on urban development. Blayney says that’s even evident in his job, which he likens to being an IT urban planner:
“It’s really all about emerging technology, strategy, looking to the future, doing things to drive community engagement.”
Through initiatives like Louisville Metro Open Data, and the community-gathered Data Commons, the city is marrying data and technology with community involvement to build a smarter and more transparent local government.


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Lindsay Pica

Co-founder at Govlaunch



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