Civic

Feb. 26, 2014 1:40 pm

What’s next for the City of Baltimore’s hackathon bid?

As of this month, just two groups submitted bids to be considered for the planning of three city-sponsored hackathons, according to bid results released by the Board of Estimates.

Attendees watching presentations at the fall 2010 Baltimore Hackathon. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Julian.

In October 2013, Technical.ly Baltimore reported that the City of Baltimore was soliciting bids from vendors to plan three city-sponsored hackathons. Later that month, city CTO Chris Tonjes said that six different groups were vying to be hired by the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) to organize those hackathons.

It’s the city’s attempt to work with the tech community to establish a better pathway to public-private partnerships in the transparency-minded civic hacking domain. Tonjes himself has shown a commitment to developing a relationship with that tech ecosystem — see his most recent posting, about a real-time map of 311 calls rolled out by the city, in the Baltimore Tech Facebook group.

But, as of this month, just two groups submitted bids to be considered for the planning of these city hackathons, according to bid results released by the Board of Estimates, and one appears unlikely to remain in the running:

  • The Greater Baltimore Tech Council, or gb.tc, with a bid of $136,270.
  • The Digital Harbor Foundation, with a bid of 91,000.

At this point, Tonjes said in a phone interview last week, the bids would be released back to the people who submitted them, MOIT would form a committee to evaluate the bids, and the bidder with the highest score (as outlined in the bidding document) would be selected, a process that takes about 30 days.

Whether the search for a city hackathon organizer is over remains a question. Last week Technical.ly Baltimore reported that gb.tc will soon go on “hiatus” to restructure the organization under new leadership. In an e-mail, chief operator of gb.tc Sharon Paley said it was her understanding “that gb.tc will be retracting its proposal to the city.” (Tonjes said in an e-mail last week that he had “not been informed that they intend to retract their bid.”)

If that’s the case, that would leave just one group, the STEM education-focused, Federal Hill-based nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation, in the running to plan three city hackathons. (The bidding document states that the chosen vendor must “work with existing tech volunteer organizations,” and references the Digital Harbor Foundation and a couple other groups on page 12.)

Read the full Hackathon Events Support bid here. For a summary of key provisions, read our article from October 2013.

So how did we get here?

Over several months through the end of 2013 and early 2014, the city re-issued the same request-for-proposals (RFP) for “Hackathon Events Support” three different times: the initial RFP in fall 2013, again in late 2013 with a due date of Jan. 15, 2014, and then again in January with an amended due date for proposals of Feb. 12, 2014.

Andrew Coy, executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, said that while “definite improvements” could be made “to the way the request for proposals are issued and processed,” he didn’t think any of the changes along the way were deliberately or onerously confusing.

“After registering as an interested entity, I received e-mails periodically when addendums were added, and it would sometimes take a bit to figure out what they meant, but I felt I was able to do so,” he said by e-mail.

A statement from the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Communications explains the rescheduling:

According to the City Purchasing Agent, the bid was initially issued as an informal bid based on the anticipated cost being around $45K. It was then reissued as a formal bid when all of the bids received exceeded the $50K threshold for informal bids.

In other words, the six groups that initially submitted bids estimated that the cost of hosting three hackathons — and providing the prizes for each — would exceed $50,000, which required the city to issue a formal bid.

“Because this is the first time the city had done this, we weren’t sure of what dollar value people were going to come back with,” said Tonjes in a phone interview, adding it’s “a little bit disappointing it’s taken this long for the process to play out.”

Money to finance the hackathons comes from MOIT’s annual budget of $8.5 million.

A search on the city government’s RFP website shows that a variety of groups at least downloaded the bidding document outlining precisely what “Hackathon Events Support” would entail.

Federal Hill cybersecurity startup ZeroFox had downloaded the materials, although ZeroFox employee Mike Passaro said it was never the company’s intention to submit a bid. “I created ZeroFox’s account on the Baltimore City site to obtain a city ‘registered vendor’ number,” he said by e-mail. “After setting up the account, I saw there were RFPs on the site. Curious, I explored a couple of the RFPs and downloaded some of the materials.”

SecondMuse was another organization that downloaded the RFP materials, and even had some meetings with the city. The “innovation and collaboration agency” that has offices in Philadelphia, Pa., and Washington, D.C., is best known in the hacking world for helping organize the National Day of Civic Hacking and the International Space Apps Challengeamong other events. But the group never submitted a hackathon bid.

“We interpreted the original bid to be somewhat open ended in how the overall hackathon initiative could be organized and managed,” said SecondMuse’s Michael Brennan in an e-mail. “In the revised bid and meetings that followed, the City of Baltimore articulated a more focused vision than ours. … We simply realized our initial interpretation of ‘long-form hackathon’ and a ‘short-form hackathon’ were more open-ended than was intended.”

As Technical.ly Baltimore reported, MOIT intends to organize two shorter, weekend-long hackathons and a “long-form” civic hacking project of at least two months, similar in scope to the inaugural Hack the Parks competition of 2013. Organized by MOIT in conjunction with gb.tc, Hack the Parks gave five different projects seed funding last summer in order for them to implement their plans — some technology-based, and some not — for improving city parks.

City CTO Tonjes has said MOIT is interested in doing hackathons because the city believes “there’s a pipeline of innovation … [to] expand the conversation about how we deploy and use technology to solve government problems.” (Others in the tech community questioned in October whether the city should even be involved in hiring vendors to run hackathons.)

But for now, it appears, the hackathon bidding process is paused. During the phone interview Tonjes said MOIT “definitely wants to have something in place” by as late as the end of spring.

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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