This article first appeared on the Digitalgov website earlier in 2016 and it proved so popular I wanted to share it with The Future Shapers community as well, I hope you enjoy it as much!

As the civic hacking movement continues to grow in the United States (and indeed worldwide), agencies are starting to adopt hackathons to engage citizens in the challenging work of improving government services and solving real-world challenges using open data.


Whether you are planning your own hackathon, or planning in a multi-government agency “mass collaboration” such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, it’s important to design citizen engagement events well.

Hackathons can (and very regularly do) produce amazing technology, but it really starts with a great problem statement. I’d like to offer some best practices and lessons learned based on our experience developing inspiring and compelling problem statements for the Random Hack of Kindness, the International Space Apps Challenge and National Day of Civic Hacking.

Civic Hacking

problem statement defines a particular challenge or issue of importance both to the agency writing it and the participants attending the hackathon. The best challenge statements meet a real need, compel developers to take action, and inspire a creative solution that could not otherwise be developed. Here are a few best practices on how to write a great problem statement:

  • Clarity:The better the challenge statement, the better the product you’ll likely end up with at the hackathon. It should be clear, actionable and linked to impact.
  • Involve stakeholders:We often kick off our challenge development by holding a “big-think” meeting with key stakeholders. This isn’t necessarily to develop the challenges themselves, but to identify areas of interest for key topics. (A recent webinar covered the topic of problem definition workshops.)
  • Make it sticky:The challenge should have a “sticky” title. I’m personally a fan of Dan and Chip Heath’s book “Made to Stick,” which talks about why some ideas survive and others die.
  • Concise communication:Building on the above, it’s helpful to write a one-sentence tagline (or a short paragraph) for your challenge. Communication is key, and this will help you strike a chord with people who are viewing a lot of different opportunities.
  • Context and background:Every great challenge provides some context to what it is, why it’s important and why the solution matters. Is it a real need? Will the solution actually be used? Who is involved? Etc.
  • Detailed challenge description:Everything above is just the hook to get potential hackers and solvers to the description. This is where you describe the opportunity in detail.
  • Vetted resources list (including data sources if applicable):Developers know that a challenge statement without resources or data is not very compelling. Nobody, especially at a hackathon, wants to start from scratch. This is where you discuss your (well-documented) API or list out the previous projects already started that might help address this.
  • Include contact information:Imagine showing up to a hackathon, being really excited about a project and then not being able to find anyone to answer basic questions about the challenge statement. More often than not, this is just a clarification around the language used. Make sure to provide the contact information of the subject matter experts who might be able to answer questions and, better yet, encourage them to actually attend the hackathon!
  • One-minute summary video:Consider using media, such as a short (seriously, keep it short) video to connect with your audience. It should not be too long, but still provide something beyond text to describe why the challenge is important and what you are asking the developer community to do.
  • Finally, one last tip.Be descriptive, but not prescriptive. Often times, especially in government, we write challenge statements with a solution in mind. These are far less inspiring than challenge statements that provide room for the developer community to not only meet the basic requirements, but also innovate beyond what you had imagined. The best solutions we have seen at previous hackathons are those that dreamed and delivered far and above what we asked for in the challenge statement.

For some great examples of challenge descriptions, you can view the challenges offered at the recent International Space Apps Challenge or the challenges for the upcoming National Day of Civic Hacking.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out!