g0v NYC Hackathon: Tech Solution Workshop or Social Meetup?

g0v NYC Hackathon: Tech Solution Workshop or Social Meetup?
Photo Credit: Eric Tsai
What you need to know

'If g0v hackathons want to truly solve issues and be a continued effort to understand issues, captivate the user’s needs and advocate the use of a technology, they must utilize product management to get these tools in the hands of those who can best use the technology.'

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I spent the first weekend of November at the first ever g0v hackathon in New York City, not as a hacker, but an observer of the event. Already confused with the format of the event, I found myself asking the question beforehand, “What is the purpose of a g0v hackathon?”

A traditional hackathon is a competition in which a problem is presented by the host or sponsor and participants work in separate teams to create a solution that they present to a panel of judges after a short amount of time (usually a weekend or 24 hours). This type of event uses competition to push teams to create a feasible solution within the time frame. This requires not just deep knowledge of technical skills, but also an understanding of the product and planning so a proper demo can be presented at the end of the event.

A g0v hackathon is a very different story; at a g0v hackathon, participants present an idea or proposal. In their terms, “digging a hole,” and then asking other participants to “jump in the hole” to “fill the hole” (create a solution).

The first time I heard of g0v was after the Sunflower Movement when people were praising the g0v community’s ability to create an Internet platform for what was one of the largest civil movements by Taiwan’s youth since the 1990 White Lily Movement. With this in mind, I envisioned the NYC event to be akin to a workshop where civic tech solutions are produced after 24 hours. However, I wanted to see how a g0v hackathon – with its different format – operated compared to a traditional hackathon.

At the beginning of the event, a video from one of the g0v co-founders and now Taiwan’s "digital" Cabinet Minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳) was played to explain how g0v works. Something I heard that stood out to me was g0v’s concept of decentralization and that everyone represented g0v. Anyone could define what g0v is. Tang explains in the video, “Whether g0v is like this or like that, there’s no definite answer, ever. Everyone when participating has a copy of g0v in their own mind.” This reminded me of an episode of “The Newsroom” in which the concept of a flat structure was criticized due to its inability to drive a specific solution for a specific issue.

Next came the presentation of projects, which varied from data scraping of the U.S. national archives for stories of Taiwan to a bot for answering Taiwanese student’s visa questions. These projects presented the same problem: these products were solutions without a problem.

I spent the two days looking at projects, talking to people in an attempt to support my doubt or dispel my misconception. Instead, it transformed how I looked at the event. From conversations with participants, I heard one common perception of the event: despite individuals not having experience in tech, they were able to contribute to certain projects. “G0v is about empowering people,” one participant said, and I think that goes a long way.

As the event rolled to an end and groups were presenting their project progress, each group talked of the next steps for their project. Granted, many of them might never revisit their projects, but their brains now have a positive experience of working on a project to help Taiwan in some way, shape or form.

G0v encourages participants to step further into the space of civic tech because it has created a safe space where any idea can be heard and any contribution to a project is considered progress. Some, if not most, of the projects were started by people who had no civic or tech experience, but ended the weekend saying, “I feel like this is a start.”

From what I saw and what I heard this weekend, g0v is a community and their big hackathons are community building events. However, these hackathons are not building solutions for active issues. What these events lack are product managers who can take a certain issue, distil it down to its root cause, and create a project plan for sustainable development. A key point to developing technology are the stakeholders.

If g0v hackathons are to remain a community-building event, giving an everyday person the experience to explore a hackathon-esque environment and leave them with a memory of meeting like-minded people, it is well-suited.

However, if g0v hackathons want to truly solve issues and be a continued effort to understand issues, captivate the user’s needs and advocate the use of a technology, they must utilize product management to get these tools in the hands of those who can best use the technology.

As event speaker Andrew Nicklin said, “People think that a group of white males in Silicon Valley will change the world. No. Ask yourself the question, ‘Are you really connecting with the people who are using it. Understand where they're coming from?”'

As a person who works as a product manager, one concept I am constantly reminded of and constantly reminding others is: technology is but a tool. It is up to the people who use it that determine how good the tool is.

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Photo Credit: Eric Tsai

There is a follow-up event on Dec. 10 in NYC.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White