Civic hackers summoned back to the HACC
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A hackathon organized by the government? As pitches go, it doesn't sound especially compelling. But the Hawaii Annual Code Challenge (HACC), held each year since 2016, has always managed to attract participants from the public sector, the private sector, and the general public.
The seventh HACC kicks off next week. Although it will again be a fully virtual program, that again broadens the opportunity for teams anywhere in Hawaii to participate.
"One exciting thing is that we've doubled our prizes," said Thelma Alane, who has coordinated the event since 2019. "We had a lot of money leftover from last year, and much rather put it out there in the community."
HACC the first
The first HACC drew a full house at Hawaii Pacific University's Aloha Tower campus.
When Hawaii Gov. David Ige joined the judging panel at the 2015 AT&T Hackathon, the story goes, he realized the potential of a similar event focused on government services. The HACC was conceived "to engage the local tech community in the modernization of Hawaii state government."
"A first of its kind in Hawaii, HACC will bring local talent together to craft innovative solutions for enhanced government services to the public. The event will also provide opportunities for students to network and show off their skills to the public and private sector professional communities."
The first month-long hackathon in 2016 ran from Aug. 27 through Sept. 24, and drew more than 200 people to its kickoff event at Hawaii Pacific University.
Local students did indeed distinguish themselves in the competition, with a team of students from Honolulu Community College’s Computing, Electronics, Networking Technology (CENT) program and the Information Security and Assurance program at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oahu tied for first place.
For that event—and most HACCs since—first prize was $5,000, second prize was $3,000, and third prize was $2,000.
Persevering through the pandemic
The second HACC drew an even bigger crowd, with more than 300 filling the conference hall at the East West Center in Mānoa. A total of 20 teams again formed to address problems presented in "reverse pitches" by state government departments.
First place went to LoveMilkTea, a map to make navigating the UH Mānoa campus easier. Second place went to an app to make it easier to navigate Hawaii Revised Statutes, Hawaii's massive book of laws. Third place went to an AI chatbot to help coordinate election volunteers.
The next two years inspired an app to measure energy usage across the UH Manoa campus, an AI-powered tool to identify native and invasive plants within seconds, a monitoring system for electric vehicle charging stations, and an app to simplify the process of applying for renewable energy loans.
Then the pandemic hit.
Hawaii Gov. Ige delivers opening remarks for HACC 2021 via Zoom.
The 2020 HACC was the first to be organized and conducted virtually.
"In 2020, we were going to do a whole year-long thing," Alane said. "In January and February, we start planning... and then you know what happened in March."
"We just like pivoted like a well oiled machine, it was really beautiful to watch, as we turned everything virtual," she recalled.
Instead of monthly workshops, the schedule was pared down to every other month, but with some designed for educators and some designed for coders, the pre-event training drew in a good number of participants.
"Everybody figured out that it was so much nicer to do things virtually, and because a lot of the students were dispersed, we had people from Guam participating, and from Virginia, and we might even had somebody from Spain," Alane said. "we had way more than twice the number of people participating just in the workshops, and doubled the participation in the final demo day."
In the end, 18 teams completed the virtual HACC, and that year brought a clean sweep by UH Mānoa students. Top team OverEasi built a chatbot that quickly shares up-to-date COVID-19 information and encourages healthy behaviors.
Meanwhile, by then, the state was saying the hackathons had saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
Things were still too uncertain in 2021 to hold the HACC in person, so the organizing team regrouped for another virtual event. "We still increased participation," Alane said. "I'm convinced it's because it's so much easier to participate."
The HACC has also included high school teams since its second year. Kamehameha Schools and Waipahu High School have won the category in the past, and Mililani High School—my alma mater—has taken first place for the last four years (though tied with Waipahu in 2018).
The next HACC
Due to tightening schedules that may or may not have something to do with the approaching general election, this year's HACC is on a truncated timeline.
"We only get three weeks for the event, which means they only have two weeks to code," Alane says. "We're extending it by kicking off the HACC on October 5 with pre-event workshops."
On the plus side, the 2022 HACC has twice as many top prizes, and more generous school prizes.
"We will have prizes for the top custom coded solutions and top prizes for the low- and no-code solutions," Alane said. "We also increased the high school prizes—first place from $1,000 to $1,500, second place at $1,000, and added a third place at $500."
Low- and no-code development are frameworks that allow people who are not programmers to build functional applications through simple, often visual interfaces.
"Low code no code is taking over even at the government level," Alane said. "At least for two of the four or five challenges we actually want a low code no code solution."
Of course, people new to software development will probably still need help with these frameworks, which is why next week's pre-event workshops will focus on them.
"We've got Salesforce training, Microsoft training because they own GitHub now, and we're working on arranging Google training as well," she said. "Microsoft is not only committing a lot of dollars to sponsor this event, but they are also committing a huge amount of time, doing five different workshops."
As for the challenges? The specifics are secret until the kickoff event and "reverse pitches" on Oct. 15. But the agencies expected to participate include:
For more information, visit hacc.hawaii.gov.