How To Hack The Government (And Why That’s A Good Thing)

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Hacker: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

RFC1392, Internet Users’ Glossary

What a weekend!

Four years ago we ran our first hackathon, and now we’re proud to have completed the first hackathon in our new NorthLight Innovation space – HackYG. It really felt like a concentration of some of the brightest minds in Yukon, and we were even lucky enough to have some participants coming from as far away as Mexico City. The energy in the space was truly palpable.

HackYG’s focus was on finding technical solutions in order to build a better, more efficient Yukon government. On day one, each team leader had two minutes to pitch their idea and form a team with any interested participants. Once they found their teams, they began developing their projects! The clock ticked down, with only 48 hours until wrap up on Saturday evening.

On Friday, as the teams settled into the nitty-gritty details of their projects, fuelled by coffee and inspiration, the benefits of this model became immediately evident. Projects sailed ahead at breakneck speeds as everybody focused on getting prototypes working. Forward focused, without getting mired in the minutia coders often bury themselves in when it comes to building full projects. Things like consistent naming conventions or finding the perfect API simply aren’t important when you only have 48 hours to finish your project. “Everything was really about building actionable prototypes for the future. It was hands on. It was getting our hands dirty and building something,” said Ben Sanders after presenting the grand prize winning demo: a chat bot AI that can help you access government services, like booking a campsite.

“Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined building a startup here, but today I am, and we have a team doing some really amazing stuff in part because of the leadership the government is showing.” Sanders continues, ”I think one of the biggest challenges to innovation is not being able to experiment. And one of the biggest challenges to me as a business in working with government is that the traditional RFP process is slow. It’s cumbersome. I think it’s broken in a lot of ways. It’s outdated and it’s exciting to see that through this model and other policies coming from this government that there’s a real openness to finding new ways to be better.”

And not only did the Yukon government embrace the hacker ethos, but the hackers embraced the Government of Yukon into their community. At one table, I overheard somebody worried that she didn’t have much to offer because she wasn’t very technical, and the response from the rest of the team was overwhelmingly welcoming. “90% of the stuff we have to do isn’t technical,” they assured her.

“I’ve been to a bunch of hackathons where it’s just software people that are showing up, so it’s neat to see this,” said Wes George, leader of the project that won the People’s Choice Award: a tool to convert government PDF forms into a more accessible format. No more will we have to download a PDF, print it, sign it, scan it back into a digital form, only to upload it to the same place you downloaded it from!

But this goes deeper than the demos that came out of the hackathon. Everybody came away from the weekend with more exposure to different ways of working more efficiently. Wes continued: “I was taking for granted a bunch of tooling that we take to get things done in the tech world, like Slack and GitHub, and yet, having people in the public sector that work on my team, I’m actually equipping them with new tools … by the end of the weekend, people who’ve never used Slack before, they’ve got it and it’s in their tool belt.”

And on the tech side, teams learned the benefits of really, honestly scoping their projects down to something they can complete in the time available. “Sometimes when we’re in project-land we imagine that we’re just flush with resources because those deadlines aren’t pending, but that’s an illusion. What project ever has all the resources it needs to complete itself?”

In the end, there were over 60 participants presenting 10 demos, and the Government of Yukon took notice. “I personally saw application for five of them [and] I’m just one guy,” said Richard Mostyn, Minister of Highways and Public Works. Deputy Premier Ranj Pillai added “All these people came into this space and started talking to one another, looked at the way government works, and you had all these different perspectives intermingling and changing. An understanding started to develop between vastly disparate groups that maybe had never really talked together, so civil servants would know a little bit more about developers, developers would know a little bit more about the needs of civil servants, and this whole cross-pollination will lead to better understandings and will help facilitate conversations.”

And when it was all over and everyone went home for some much deserved rest, we were left inspired by a weekend full of open communication, innovative experimentation, and the drive to do the seemingly impossible in only 48 hours. We would like to thank and congratulate all the participants who truly made this event greater than anything we could have imagined.

Keep on hacking!