For the General Services Administration, hackathons are more than just occasional convocations for civic-minded techies in the private sector. They're also a chance to find products that could save the federal government thousands of dollars in IT spending, and an opportunity to recruit tech talent.
In the GSA's second annual hackathon, held last week, 16 self-selected teams attempted to tackle one of three challenges: creating a system to help federal agencies visualize how much their vehicles are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, designing a virtual tool to combine disparate data sets about GSA's data center consolidation, and improving the federal government's travel booking process.
Three teams -- two of which focused on the greenhouse gas challenge, while a third worked on data centers -- collectively won $15,000, or $1,000 per person (government employees were not eligible to win cash). One winning team created a mobile app to help federal managers analyze information about data consolidation; another built a platform comparing agencies' gas emissions.
According to Joe Castle, GSA's IT lead for digital innovation and strategy, the cash prize is an investment in federal technology. After GSA's inaugural hackathon in May, judges awarded teams a total of $12,000, but were able to use the framework for one winning project in place for a $500,000 procurement.
That product, a system for managing help-desk tickets for building complaints, is being developed as a Salesforce application that could potentially debut in three to six months, Castle said. (Adding up the total labor cost for the hackathon, Castle calculates the total return on that investment to be around $125,000.)
Castle also uses hackathons to scout for tech talent -- especially now that he's hiring a digital services team for the agency. He's specifically looking for user experience designers, front-end Web and back-end API developers, among other tech professionals.
These events, which draw interested techies from the public and private sectors as well as academia, are a chance to "have the dialogue," Castle said.
"You get access to someone like me -- normally, we're behind secured walls or you have to see me at a conference or somewhere, or find me on LinkedIn... [it helps] getting out beyond normal traditional boundaries," he said.
The next hackathon is slated for April 22, 2016 -- Earth Day, Castle said. The challenges will likely focus on greenhouse gas emissions data again, or ways to process information gathered from sensors in federal buildings about electricity or temperature, among other possibilities.