White House hackathon a success; could a Patdownathon be next?

The recent White House hackathon might provide a blueprint for surviving the sequester


Last month I wrote about the White House accepting applications from developers wanting to take part in the first ever White House Open Data Day Hackathon. The idea was to get a group of programmers to come to the White House and spend the day playing with the new API for Petitions, the open source engine that powers We the People, the White House petitions site. The hackathon has since been held and last week Peter Welsch of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy provided a summary of the event.

Programmers hacking away at the White House last month

Image credit: White House Office of Digital Strategy

21 programmers came to the White House on February 22 to hack away and put the new API through its paces. At the end of the day, a number of interesting-sounding projects were presented, some of which will become part of We the People or released separately. They came up with things like maps showing where signatures for petitions came from, embeddable widgets to represent how far along a petition is to getting an official response and a tool to generate a word cloud to reflect the issues about which people are creating petitions. 

They also provided a brief video highlighting the day:

All in all, it sounded like a fine time. I think it’s great that the government is dipping its toes into the open source waters and reaching out to people to get their help and input on these sorts of projects. It’s not a high cost endeavour and I think it more than pays for itself by helping to promote programming. Also, it can lead to some nice tools that everyone can use.

In fact, I’m thinking that the whole hackathon concept could be used in other areas of government, not just for programming-related things. I think the idea of getting people to come together and pitch in for a few hours to get things done could really be helpful during this whole sequestration situation. I’m just spitballing here but, in the hackathon spirit, what about holding a few day-long events to pick up some of the slack in government services caused by the sequester such as:

  • Patdownathon - The sequester could eventually lead to longer wait times at airport security, as overtime for TSA workers gets cut and staff levels decrease. How about if we each took a day to volunteer at our local airport to pat down travelers? Or maybe it would be better to volunteer at an airport far from home so you won’t find yourself putting your hands on that swarthy guy who lives around the corner.

  • Narcathon - The DEA is faced with a significant cut in its budget under sequestration. To keep drug use from skyrocketing during these times, how about we each take a day to be honorary DEA agents and follow around that shady looking kid who delivers your pizza? Now’s your chance to tail him for a day and see exactly what he’s up to in that beat up Kia (and find out why your side order of Cinnastix always have a few bites taken out of them).

  • Wrenchathon - Do you like to wrench on your car on the weekends? Well, how’d you like to spend a Saturday underneath an Abrams tank? No part of the federal government will be hit harder by the sequester than the Department of Defense - and nobody’s got bigger or cooler stuff that still needs maintaining. How about donating a Saturday to finally getting those tricky new F-35 fighter jets flying or maybe helping to change the oil on an aircraft carrier? You provide the elbow grease and the government will provide the tools, the mess hall coffee and the MREs.

Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud here. 

Did you take part in the White House hackathon? Would you like to take part in future government hackathons? Let us know in the comments.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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