Motivating developers to attend and make meaningful contributions at civic hackathons

Open government hackathons matter

Mark Headd has some interesting thoughts on encouraging better participation at civic hackathons, suggesting perhaps a registration fee would drive more reliable participation. For those who will be at SXSW this year, he’s also giving a talk on lessons learned in organizing events such as these.

While you can typically expect up to a fifty percent drop-off rate for any free event that doesn’t require specific attendee contributions, Mark may be onto something.

However, there’s something more happening here, and it’s related to motivation.

It doesn’t matter whether you have 1,000 or 10 people at an event. What matters is having the right people for the right task with a sustainable deliverable that also fosters volunteerism and sense of community. The hackathon itself shouldn’t be where all the work, from scratch to finish, is done. It should be the foundation for bringing what’s happening online, building community through code and celebrating the final product(s).

Areas hackathon organizers must address when considering attendance and meaningful outcomes:

  • Don’t mistake quantity for quality. I’ll take five solid designers/developers/writers to build a website or application over 100 with little focus and not taking their civic duty serious.
  • Plan ahead, outline objectives, have focus, give ownership, achieve a goal. The hackathon shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all for what happens. If someone has a specific task and sense that their work is going to have sustainable value to the community, they’re more likely to show up.
  • Get government involved. Hackathon organizers need to work with government (and vice versa) to understand its needs and how they can support it. Fundamentally, civic activists want to see some sort of appreciation or sense their voice (in this case, their code) is being heard. Government involvement is critical.

If you accomplish the above, you’ll get serious developers taking a brief step away from their startup venture or overwhelming demand for paid work, where they know they can be creative building work that’s meaningful and lasts beyond the lifespan of the weekend. Otherwise, you’re going to get light attendance with outcomes that produce vanity projects with little value celebrated by a core few.

For those interested motivating and incentivizing people beyond manual, rote tasks, Dan Pink’s RSAnimate talk and 2009 TED talk are a must watch, because they applies to civic hackathons, contests and challenges.

Pink’s RSA talk:

Pink’s 2009 TED Talk:

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.