Students from MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) led a 24-hour policy hackathon in Boston that called upon participants to form teams and analyze data sets to solve urban problems as part of the city-wide HUBweek festival. The hackathon was designed to support the 2018 HUBweek theme “We the Future.”
Six teams pitched ideas to a panel of judges. Their proposals focused on improving transportation safety, employment opportunities, and public health in the Boston area.
“The issues that we tackled are rooted in the needs of local citizens and cities,” said Nathaniel Fruchter, a student organizer who is studying in the Technology and Policy Program (TPP), a master’s program at IDSS.
Josh Wolff SM '15, a hackathon judge and TPP alumnus who now works with civic data in the City of Cambridge Information Technology Department called the hackathon “very relevant” to work being done by the city's staff.
“Each of these hackathon topics is also an important city government initiative,” Wolff said.
The winning team, who called themselves the “Future Work Hackers,” offered a solution for expanding employment opportunities to Boston-area millennials who do not have college degrees. The program would support private-public partnerships to help individuals gain marketable skills, and would also offer tax credits and incentives to companies that hired them.
The second place team, who dubbed themselves “Working Solutions,” offered ways to improve the collection, coding, and utilization of citizen-sourced 311 call data in order to reduce traffic accidents.
“Sourcing challenges with local governments helped produce ideas that are actually very useful,” said Kimberly Lucas, another hackathon judge who is director of civic research for the City of Boston. “The pitches I heard offered new insights, new ways of using data, and even new questions that are all directly relevant to what we're working on in City Hall.”
IDSS students ran their first policy hackathon on campus this past spring, and used that experience to scale the event to be a part of HUBweek, which bills itself as Boston’s “festival for the future.” The event features workshops, installations, lectures, and conversations, as well as performances and demonstrations in art, health, science, and technology.
Donovan Guttieres, an IDSS student organizer, said one of his primary objectives for the hackathon was to demonstrate the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration to tackling civic challenges. “Complex societal problems are most effectively addressed when bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders working at the nexus of science, policy, and society,” he said.
From their position as judges, Lucas and Wolff agreed.
“The multiplicity of perspectives on the same challenge was helpful,” said Lucas, “and the policy focus of the hackathon helped give deeper meaning and context to the challenges for us in city government.”
Both judges also remarked on the direct usefulness of the policy proposals to city officials.
“For local governments, policy reports and data analyses are often more actionable than traditional hackathon outputs like software prototypes or apps,” Wolff said.
Empowering citizens to put actionable policy recommendations directly into the hands of local government was a major goal for the event organizers, and they were very satisfied with the results. Said Guttieres: “We wanted all participants to feel that anyone, given the right tools and opportunities, can contribute to making our future more sustainable.”