The turnout for and participation in the third Congressional Hackathon reveals a growing community and culture committed to improving the legislative process through technology, according to event attendees and organizers.
“Each hackathon we’ve had has grown in attendance and it’s [including] a lot of the same people,” said Steve Dwyer, senior adviser to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and one of the organizers of the hackathon, held November 30. “It’s really about the community that the hackathon has helped foster, the community of technologists that care about Congress.”
The first hackathon was held in 2011 and focused on releasing big data from the legislative branch to the public, such as through the website Congress.gov, which launched in beta in 2012 and provides machine-readable and downloadable data on the legislative process to the public.
According to attendee Daniel Schuman, chairman of the Congressional Data Coalition steering committee, the hackathons have also helped to improve relationships between members of Congress and the civilian technology committee.
“We had a cycle where those of us in civil society would tell Congress that we really desperately want something, and Congress wouldn’t listen. So, we would yell at them, and then Congress would get angry at us for yelling at them. And you had this vicious cycle,” said Schuman.
“We wanted something, we wanted access to legislative data. But what we ended up doing is we ended up changing the culture in Congress, where there are people all throughout the institution now who are talking to each other and talking to those of us in civil society about how to make the institution better.”
“It’s created these companies, these apps, these tools,” said Dwyer.
Congressional hosts Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., both spoke about the positive impact that inspired, everyday Americans can have on the functioning of their government.
“This I think is one of the most exciting and important events that we host. What transpires here has the potential to transform Congress — and therefore the country and, to some degree, our democracy — for years to come,” said Hoyer. “Great ideas will come together and inspire new and innovative projects both inside and outside of Congress.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from in life, there’s an opportunity for you to help your government,” said McCarthy. “Everybody can be a part of making this government better.”
According to attendees, the bipartisan nature of the event presented a strong draw to attend.
“It’s not often you see a bipartisan event put on, and I’m the mid-Atlantic region director for the Young Democrats of America, so I definitely wanted to get some ideas and perspectives from across the aisle and see everyone work together to make a better government,” said Latia Hopkins.
“It’s important that we take a step away from the partisan back and forth and find ways like this hackathon to come together and engage the public in a positive way and make Congress more open and more transparent,” said Hoyer.
“All of these efforts, both bipartisan and within our respective parties have the same goal: helping restore faith in government by making it more transparent, more accessible to those we serve and more effective.”
According to Dwyer, who has coordinated all three Congressional Hackathons with the help of Republican counterparts, the experience is entirely rewarding and constructive.
“There’s no partisan issues here,” said Dwyer. “There are Democrats and Republicans here. We’re just worried about technology and making Congress better and not through any partisan lens.”
After opening remarks, attendees had the option to participate in five different breakout groups: Public Engagement and Social Media, Legislative Data and Process, Moonshot Ideas, Hearings and Press Briefings, and Constituent Services. The groups brainstormed ideas for improving the legislative branch, then presented the ideas onstage at the end of the hackathon.
Attendees included private-sector innovators, tech vendors looking to identify pain points within the legislative branch, executive branch employees, and an appearance by Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose Modernizing Government Technology Act was lauded at the event as an example of bipartisan legislative success in improving the federal government.
The third hackathon also featured a new component from years previous called “quick pitches,” allowing 12 attendees to present 3-minute pitches on legislative data-based innovations they are working on.
“From a very selfish perspective I want people to find me who want to talk about these things so that we can work together,” said Schuman, who presented on a website that makes Congressional Research Service reports available to the public.
“The Congressional Hackathon is a great opportunity for people to come together and build a community. And it’s really important for everybody to see all the different things that everyone is building.”
Other presentations included apps to simplify congressmen’s constituent casework processes and to keep legislative staff up to date on votes, as well as automation processes for recording constituent calls.
According to Dwyer, the presentations came from suggestions by an attendee at previous hackathons and were a “big hit” this year. Dwyer also said that, in future, he hopes to expand email communications with attendees in advance of the event to better develop ideas and presentations.