GSA hackathons come with big returns

GSA CIO David Shive chats with Christine Harada, associate administrator for governmentwide policy, at the first digital innovation hackathon in May. (GSA)

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The General Services Administration is saving hundreds of thousands of dollars using innovative IT developed through hackathons for a fraction of the price of conventional alternatives, the agency’s chief information officer said.

After GSA’s first digital innovation hackathon in May, the agency saw an “over $500,000” return on the approximately $25,000 it gave out to the competition winners from industry and academia.

“What a great return,” Shive told FedScoop at GSA headquarters. “I’ll make that investment as a taxpayer … again and again and again.”

Shive was particularly excited about the full-cycle collaboration of the first event: “Hackathons are citizens helping government serve citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Hackathons are gaining popularity around the globe, even inside of the federal government, with agencies like the departments of Interior and Agriculture joining together earlier this year to host a joint hackathon around the Recreation.gov, and 18F advocating for the events and their ability to bring together technical and nontechnical people alike.

And the solutions participants come up with, Shive said, are legitimate tools agencies can use. During the May competition, participants created a variety of tools with guidance from GSA on its needs, such as improvement of the agency’s Public Building Services’ Tenant Satisfaction Survey and a fresh way for citizens interact with GSA data on its public data listing.

“This wasn’t just people dreaming up stuff that would never have an opportunity to be used,” he said. “These really smart people came out at the end of the day with minimally viable products that actually worked — real, live mobile device applications that worked, solving some of those problems.”

On Oct. 16, GSA plans to hold its second hackathon, this time with a few changes. Not only will the featured topics be different — including a tool for the visualization of data center consolidation progress — but this time Shive said he’s also inviting feds from other agencies to join.

“We’re finding that the fed space is full of really smart people who are passionate that maybe aren’t in an IT job…but they go home at night and they write code and they build mobile apps just cause they think it’s really cool,” he said. “Why would we ever not use that as a resource to solve some of our problems?”

And if this hackathon goes well, as Shive expects it to, he said GSA will continue to invest in the competitions.

“We’ll continue doing these until we no longer see return of value on these things,” Shive said.

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David Shive, Government IT News, Innovation
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