3 ideas for turning hackathons into an economic boost

When you think of a big economic development initiative, what comes to mind? A new business district? Convincing an employer to relocate to your city?

While all are proven ideas, there’s another opportunity: consumer apps. As you’ll read below, the market is growing by leaps and bounds. And better yet: there’s something you can do to incubate it in your own city.

We talk a lot about hackathons, but Current, powered by GE, a Council Global Lead Partner, offers three great ideas for turning those events into an economic boost. — Kevin Ebi


By James Benson, Head of Global Strategic Alliances & Marketing, Current, powered by GE

In five years, the consumer app economy will be worth $6.3 trillion, up from $1.3 trillion last year, according to a recent report by app measurement company App Annie. Accenture estimates the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

The question remains: how do smart cities drive their app economy? Short answer: Start with real-time data and hackathons.

Erik Caldwell, Director of the City of San Diego’s Economic Development Department, had this to say about data-enabled hackathons:

“We’ve hosted several hackathons in San Diego that used simulated data. They provide opportunities for application developers, both large and small, to solve our city’s challenges with unbridled innovation and creativity. Inevitably, all stakeholders feel empowered by the possibilities. And the finalists of the hackathons, with our private partnerships, have the opportunity to realize and then scale their solutions.”

With that said, here are some considerations for hosting meaningful hackathons like San Diego:

1. Deploy infrastructure to enable ubiquitous data.
Leverage smart city infrastructure and IIoT technology today if you are serious about jumpstarting your civic app economy. After all, it’s this smart city digital infrastructure that will provide the ubiquitous data—the pulse—for application developers to create life-enhancing, life-changing and even life-saving solutions your citizens want and need.

Smart cities can crawl before they walk by identifying one or two neighborhoods and installing intelligent nodes on existing or new street lights. If smart cities cannot commit to a large-scale deployment like San Diego, that’s okay. The key is to start. This way local developers can obtain the data they need to envision and create amazing solutions to benefit citizens.

2. Host engaging hackathons that provide the data to empower developers.
After sponsoring several hackathons in San Diego, Atlanta, Columbus and Santa Clara (along with online hackathons involving seven campuses of the California State University), we can attest to the impact they have on stakeholders and the developer community. At these hackathons, developers clamor for data. They especially need real-time street-level data that is often lacking from most open data portals. If the real-time data is not available, then use simulated data—it’s better than no data.

Prior to the hackathon, schedule a meetup or two to educate the developers on potential use cases for the real or simulated data. Then, during the hackathon, consider establishing a Slack channel to stay engaged with the developers.

Hackathons that use the real or simulated data (such as traffic, parking, pedestrian, video and image on demand and environmental) attract top talent and optimize opportunities for breakthrough solutions to solve real-world challenges.

Developers were thrilled to use real-time data via an open data initiative by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) at Atlanta's recent AT&T Civic Coding Competition (C3 Atlanta).

Hackathon finalists even show a proclivity for using data to develop apps that boost local economies. Some winning apps from recent hackathons help:

  • Manage parking violations and citations,
  • Allow one-stop shopping for last-minute weekend tourists,
  • Track assets for shipping companies, and  
  • Gain real-time retail insights based on vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

(These are a just a few examples. You can learn more about the winning apps and finalists.)

3. Offer sustainable rewards to hackathon finalists.
When deciding on prizes for finalists, keep this in mind: cash prizes burn quickly, but long-term funding and partnership opportunities provide sustainable application development. Consider linking finalists with nurturing resources like venture capital groups, business mentors and municipal liaisons.

Also, by featuring winning developers in an online setting, such as an Innovation Apps Center, cities can increase exposure and help bring applications to fruition.

Install intelligent nodes to capture ubiquitous data. Host hackathons that use real or simulated data. And then, reward finalists with sustainable resources. Do these things, and you will jumpstart your city’s app economy.

James Benson, Head of Global Strategic Alliances & Marketing, Current, powered by GE, is passionate about working with cities across the world to solve their toughest challenges. Connect with James on LinkedIn