Hackathons as gateways to more and better open data

Posted: August 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

There is a piece up on O’Reilly Radar by Andy Oram about the sustainability of applications built during hackathons. I am involved in Hack de Overheid and we have organized (Apps for Amsterdam) and still are organizing (Apps for Noord Holland) several hackathons and I thought it would be good to add our experiences to the fray.

First: I do not agree with the premise that most apps created in government challenges are quickly abandoned. I have not done a tally of our Apps for Amsterdam contest, but the completeness and polish of most apps submitted was impressive. I still use several of the apps from that contest regularly. Snelstepontje.nl for finding out which ferry to take is a godsend just to name one.

Maintenance is indeed an issue. It is my personal experience that if the app is deployed to a suitably robust platform (Google App Engine is a notable one), it may continue to run unsupervised for many years.

But yes, I do have my own doubts when it comes to the sustainability of apps from app contests as I have stated in my review of Apps for Amsterdam.

Data quality is the largest issue on all levels and it needs to be addressed. From gathering data, to publishing it, to responding adequately to issues. Most datasets that are released for contests are not of the highest quality due to time constraints. And after the contest is over they are seldom kept up to date by the publishing office. When it comes to sustainability, government should first turn to itself and start releasing their data in a way that is sustainable.

Besides releasing the data in a proper format, a very important consideration is the licensing. Re-using data should happen under conditions as liberal as possible (CC0 preferred) as not to deter companies from investing in using that data.

But even then creating apps that are successful and sustainable at scale may be too lofty a goal. Productizing apps in a professional way implies conceiving, building and expanding a startup company. If one or more such initiatives come out of a hackathon that may be called a resounding succes. But what of the rest?

Well, communities of practice are built on exactly that: practice. Data does not overnight become readily at hand and usable. It takes a lot of hard work from all of us.

Having organized several hackdays we are seeing an increase in number of people attending and their proficiencies as well as a wider awareness of the possibilities of data in journalism, government and politics. Those are exactly the things we need if we want to make open data (and not just applications) the foundational fabric of our information society.