February 1, 2018 1:01 AM
by Behrang Abadi
What is Hack the Beach and Why is it Important?
Before we tell anyone what Hack the Beach is, we begin by explaining what it’s not. Repeat after me: Hack the Beach is not a hackathon. Hackathons have been and continue to be all the rage across every conceivable sector. Private, public, education – you name it, there’s currently a hackathon underway to bring people together over the course of a few hours or days for an exchange of ideas, exposure to new/emerging tech, and putting together prototypes.
Hackathons are awesome, but that’s not what the City of Santa Monica was looking for.
With Hack the Beach, we wanted to solicit, support, and celebrate ideas and solutions to improve the lives of Santa Monica residents, businesses, and visitors – we are realistic and we know that we can’t possibly achieve the outcomes we desire over the course of a weekend, regardless of how much talent and how many cases of energy drinks are on hand for a hackathon.
Our Driving Forces for Hack the Beach
Leveling the Procurement Playing Field
Large technology firms know how to do business with Santa Monica and every other City in the region. The same cannot be said of smaller, local businesses who have no knowledge of government procurement. In short, the City of Santa Monica wanted the businesses of Silicon Beach and surrounding areas to know that we are open for business, and we want to hear about their solutions.
Branching Beyond City Hall
We know that traditional City venues and meeting times do not mesh well with most working adults. So we decided to move Hack the Beach away from City Hall’s physical location, and operate outside of normal (to City Hall) business hours. Our partners at the Chamber of Commerce, Cross Campus, ExpertDojo, General Assembly, Hack for LA, Santa Monica Public Library, and Water Gardens generously donated their time and awesome venues for our use.
Helping Real Solutions Get to Work
We did this once before, and the result was really spectacular. Our winner from the first Hack the Beach Contest, CityGrows, has become a full-fledged City vendor, providing multiple departments with online services that have made the City more efficient and responsive to our customers.
We have a straight-forward approach for our contests. Here’s how it works:
Build a Dedicated Project Team
This was truly a team effort. The project team often worked on their personal time and treated Hack the Beach as a labor of love. Our team consisted of staff from the City of Santa Monica Information Services Department and Office of Civic Wellbeing, members of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, and representatives from ExpertDojo, CrossCampus, General Assembly, and HackerFund. Our previous winner, CityGrows, was also a member of the project steering team; having a previous contestant’s feedback was a huge help.
Align Challenges with City Goals
We want Hack the Beach to be more than a passing fad or a pet project, we want it to be meaningful and impactful. With that, we ensured that whatever challenges, problem statements, or opportunities we engaged the business community with were actual areas of interest and/or concern for the City of Santa Monica.
Assign Roles & Responsibilities
A lot goes into event planning. We had assigned roles for managing venues, vendors, guest speakers, communications, and relationships with the contestants, respectively. This is a lot of work, but luckily we had a large enough project team to share the workload across multiple people.
Getting to a Winner
In 2017, we had the great privilege of meeting 28 startups through Hack the Beach. This year’s winning team, Project Minder, developed a tool that can help first responders identify unused bed space in hospitals for homeless people struggling with mental illness.
Landing at a winner is a months-long process. Here’s what it looked like for us:
- Develop challenges and judging criteria, release application inviting pitches.
- Review applications to ensure one or more challenges are being addressed.
- Provide everyone an opportunity to conduct a lightning pitch.
- Conduct a blind vote of all applications (based on stated judging criteria) by a joint group of City staff and external partners.
- Invite the top scoring applicants to conduct a longer pitch to a panel of judges.
- Judges confer on pitch night and selected a winner.
Thinking of running your own contest? We’ve got some helpful lessons learned to help you get started:
- No matter how prepared you think you are, something will go wrong. Be ready to roll with it and have a sense of humor.
- Don’t have too many events – more doesn’t mean better. You know your community’s appetite for public events, come up with an event interval that makes sense.
- Consult every calendar you can get your hands on when planning your events. You don’t want your event to fall on the night of other large events.
- Lastly, set and keep to your program’s goals. For example, our goal with Hack the Beach is to foster greater involvement and collaboration between the City and small businesses. Ensure that your events are setup in a manner that achieves your goals (as opposed to focusing only on a winner).
We had a great series of events filled with pitches, mingling, networking, and keynote addresses, all of which culminated in a contest winner.
The City looks forward to seeing ProjectMinder’s innovative approach towards improving mental health response get tested throughout the region.
We’re thrilled to have another year of Hack the Beach under our belt, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey along the way.
Digital Transformation and Development Manager