Attendees watching presentations at the fall 2010 Baltimore Hackathon, one of the city's first. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Julian.
Six groups are vying to win a Baltimore city bid to plan and organize three city-sponsored hackathons in 2014, said city CTO Chris Tonjes.
“About six people have responded to the RFP,” Tonjes said. “We got a nice cross-section of people from the community who are interested in helping us.”
Earlier this month Technical.ly Baltimore reported that the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) is hiring an outside vendor to “plan, manage, market, and provide ongoing support” for three hackathons in 2014 that will be sponsored by the city.
And then there was howling, most of it concentrated in a 78-comments-long thread in the Baltimore Tech Facebook group and focused on what some supporters of hackathons view as anathema to the spirit of such events: enlisting a vendor to run them, instead of eager, enthusiastic and Baltimore-based volunteers.
“I’m a little disappointed that everyone was so negative about this,” Tonjes said in a phone interview. “In the parlance of city contracting, anybody we pay to do anything is a vendor.”
For what is typically a community-oriented event, requesting proposals from vendors comes off as unorthodox, and might make people interested in participating a bit leery. Tonjes said that when most residents “think about the Baltimore government, they don’t have the best opinion.”
But just the appearance of the word vendor was enough to spur some of the criticism on Facebook. Does hiring a vendor to throw a hackathon belie not only the raison d’être of a hackathon, but also its very definition?
In the disruption-loving world of technology, hackathons are central to the premise: groups of people voluntarily huddle around computer monitors to break lines of code, not arrange them neatly for the construction of an app that serves a civic purpose. In some cases, and over time, the destructive properties of hackathons have slowly evolved, as such events have been harnessed by city governments — think New York City’s open data competition BigApps — and civic-minded technologists as forces for good.
While skepticism about the net positive effect of civic hackathons abounds, Tonjes has thrown his support behind them since assuming the CTO job in summer 2012. (At June’s civic hackathon, MOIT took the opportunity to publicly announce Heather Hudson as Baltimore’s first chief data officer.)
Which is why, he said, MOIT issued a bidding document requesting outside support, not only to organize the hackathons and distribute prizes for winners, but also to involve community partners and city residents.
“I’m very sensitive to the fact that most people who are volunteers have jobs, and … the amount of energy they can devote to these things is limited,” Tonjes said. “So getting somebody outside to help us … gives us a new perspective to have if we tried to do this ourselves.”
Tonjes said the recently completed Hack the Parks competition is “a really good example of what we want to do.” The bidding document calls for any vendor chosen to organize two smaller hackathons, which will probably take place over two separate weekends, and a third, “long-form” hackathon more in the vein of Hack the Parks, where seed funding was distributed to five teams to test out pilot projects — for example, a map that plotted the invasive vines killing trees in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park — over the summer.
“We were able to come up with solutions to problems that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” he said.
Tonjes said MOIT hopes to pick a hackathon organizer by October’s end. The details of the groups vying for the spot are not public.
UPDATED 10/28/13 at 12:17 p.m.: The names of groups bidding on the RFP are not public, said city CTO Chris Tonjes, because the city had to re-issue the RFP for open bidding. “The city’s procurement office determined that they needed to use another acquisition method,” Tonjes said.-30-