While no one knows what Donald Trump’s victory in last month’s election will mean for Silicon Valley, or the technology industry broadly, the President-Elect’s win has crystallized the region’s thinking around at least one problem.
Many tech workers think that local, state and federal governments have, for whatever reason, been slow to adopt new technologies that can address or redress systemic problems.
So they’re setting aside political ideologies and focusing on developing technologies that can make government (and civil society more broadly) operate more effectively… and using one of the Valley’s most tried-and-true traditions– the hackathon — to do it.
The most recent entrant into the wild world of government-focused hacking is Reboot Democracy, which will hold its first event on Friday, December 9th running through the weekend at 500 Startups’ San Francisco offices.
Confirmed judges for the hackathon that will vet the solutions teams will pitch include the outspoken conservative Khosla Ventures investment partner, Keith Rabois, and Scott Wiener, the Democratic California State Senator-Elect representing San Francisco.
“This is not a ‘stop Trump’ thing,” co-founder Mike McCormick, a principal at Comet Labs in his day job, said in a statement distributed to media. “We’re focused on systemic issues like citizen engagement, voter education, government accountability and echo chambers, to name a few.”
Government-sponsored or government-focused hackathons aren’t a new phenomenon, but they’re increasingly being embraced by a technology community that has been forced to take a look at itself and its impact in the wake of the election.
“What we saw in this election is that many people don’t feel that the political system is working for them. They feel disenfranchised and not sure how to get involved,” said Joanna Popper, who spends her days working for Singularity University. “We wanted to create an event for people to bring their diverse skill sets and passion and create systems and projects that increase civic engagement and have a positive impact on the system.”
McCormick and fellow organizers Winter Mead, an investment partner at Sapphire Ventures by day, and Matt King, a sales exec at Microsoft, began discussing the hackathon immediately in the aftermath of the election.
“We met the first weekend after the election and it started snowballing,” said King. “I had the idea to do the hackathon and started putting out feelers to friends.”
The roster on Reboot Democracy’s steering committee reads boasts employees or former employees of companies like Uber, POPSUGAR, and The Federal Reserve, as well as some only-in-Silicon-Valley jobs like viral video producer.
“I think we’ve all realized that sharing articles on Facebook or ranting on Twitter really aren’t effective means of addressing our big collective challenges,” said Lee Anne Grant, one of the Reboot Democracy’s founding members. “We want to leverage our experience working in tech to get people excited about taking meaningful action.”
There’s been a long tradition of government organizations putting together their own hackathons in American cities like New York and Chicago. Now other metropolitan areas in places as unlikely as Chandler, Ariz. are getting in on the action.
Organizations like Code For America have organized national civic hacking days in cities across the U.S. Not to be outdone by private initiatives, the U.S. Government has launched a number of challenges and individual agencies from NASA to the General Services Administration have put together hackathons.
Still, the elections seem to have energized corners of the Silicon Valley community to start thinking more deeply about the intersection of government and technology.
Reboot is, in fact, the second hackathon organization that’s emerged since the election. We’ve already written about Debug Politics, which launched in November with a similar mission.
Specifically, Debug Politics is organizing a hackathon this weekend in San Francisco, followed by events in New York, Los Angeles and another in SF. Attendees (who could be developers, designers, marketers and others) are encouraged to figure out “one thing that you’re dissatisfied with in the 2016 election cycle” and build something to fix it — whether that’s something that could help a particular candidate in 2018, or could address broader issues like the divide between rural and urban voters.
These kinds of technologies are also beginning to find more of an audience with Valley investors, which means that the hacks that come out of these competitions may find themselves getting real money.
General Catalyst partner Niko Bonatsos has spoken of his desire to invest in technologies that are focused on urbanization — many of which could fall under the auspices of government tech.
He’s not alone. There’s the dedicated $23 million GovTech fund, run by Ron Bouganim and a slew of other investors who’re focused on backing government-focused technologies. The elections may not have gone the way that a large swath of Silicon Valley had hoped, but the region may yet have a substantial impact on the way government is conducted.