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The Pulse of Tech for Good in Seattle

Seattle has a vibrant civic spirit and booming tech economy, but for too long it’s been surprisingly difficult for socially conscious individuals to find opportunities to contribute their most valuable skills to projects that benefit our local communities. That changed last year with the launch of a series of hackathons designed to connect skilled volunteers with technology projects that advance the public good. The next opportunity is St. Hack-trick’s Day on March 16th.

The events began as a collaboration between local tech for good groups Open Seattle, Seattle Tech4Good, DemocracyLab and Seattle Data for Good (which subsequently merged with Seattle Tech4Good). Leaders of the groups lamented that it was difficult to get the right people working on the right projects at the right time, and that members of each group had little visibility to what the others were doing. The hackathons were envisioned as a means to convene Seattle’s tech for good community, build connections between members, and strengthen the capacity of the network.

The first event was held in August at Code Fellows on the National Day of Civic Hacking, and was structured to help local nonprofits and project leaders scope their work and understand best practices to engage skilled volunteers. Attendees were welcomed by Kate Garman, the Mayor’s Technology Policy Advisor, and benefited from insightful presentations from representatives of 501 Commons and Dupla Studios, among others. An article in GeekWire helped boost the event and the 50+ attendees left feeling empowered to experiment with new types of volunteer engagement to advance their organizations’ missions.

September’s Civic Tech Volunteer Hackathon featured many of the projects from the August event and roughly 100 volunteers. It was a standing room only crowd at Code Fellows, where project leaders pitched their ideas, teams formed, and everyone spread out across the facilities to dig into the work. A key distinction between this event and many other hackathons is that the stated intent wasn’t to produce a product or prototype in a day, but to help the organizations make incremental progress towards their project’s goals and create opportunities for long-term volunteer engagement. It was a great day of teamwork, collaboration, learning and fun. Several projects were subsequently showcased at Pacific Science Center’s Curiosity Days: Evolving Cities event.

The next two events followed much the same format. The Hack to Give Thanks and Hacky New Year events in November and January built the community’s momentum through the holidays. Projects were able to showcase their progress and refresh their teams, while volunteers continued learning, networking and contributing. A few bright spots of impact among participating projects include Ready Set Vote, which rebuilt the backend of its website so it can be used beyond King County; Orcasound, which launched a web app to let anyone listen live to underwater sounds in orca habitat; and Seattle VolunTech, which recruited a swarm of volunteers to implement its WTIA Ion-inspired project to help minority-owned south Seattle businesses address pent up tech needs. Hacky New Year attendees were also treated to a presentation from Paul Alley, Seattle’s Open Data Manager, about the city’s open data program and its future vision.

The City of Seattle’s Community Technology Advisory Board (CTAB) has joined the team of co-organizers for March’s St. Hack-trick’s Day event. CTAB’s network and emphasis on equity and inclusion will help broaden our reach into Seattle’s volunteer communities and strengthen the connections between tech for good projects and decision makers in local government. We’ll also be fortunate on March 16th to hear from Will Saunders, the state of Washington’s “Open Data Guy” about open data opportunities and challenges at the state level.

These events wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of local companies that believe in the potential of volunteer-driven tech for good. Many thanks to current sponsors Code Fellows, Tyler Technologies (Socrata), and HERE Technologies and to past sponsors Avalara, Apptio, and Unify. We’ve also appreciated the steady support of community partners WTIA and Washington Nonprofits.So join us on March 16th to get inspired, imagine a better future, and contribute your talent. Whether you’re a concerned citizen or a technical wizard, you have something to contribute. Projects will need coders, designers, researchers, project managers, subject matter experts, and just ordinary people. You can review the growing list of participating projects and get involved now, or wait to choose a project on the day of the event. Don’t delay, RSVP today!


  • Mark Frischmuth

    Mark is the Executive Director of DemocracyLab, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization empowering a community of people and projects that use technology to advance the public good. Mark earned a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from Miami University, and Master's degrees in Business Administration and Public Administration from the University of Washington. Mark is married and the father of two young daughters.

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