Outside techies clean up at Hackathon

Before teams from academia and the private sector could build apps and searchable databases at GSA's Hackathon, they had to do some housecleaning.

Shutterstock image (by Andrii_M): computer binary code.

For the low price of $12,000, the General Services Administration got a pretty thorough data cleanse — and a few solutions it wasn’t necessarily expecting.

More than 60 developers, designers and data scientists from academia and the private sector descended on GSA headquarters May 8 to participate in the agency’s inaugural Hackathon.

The participants were sorted into five teams at random, and two of those teams ultimately won the advertised prize.

The first winning team, composed of techies from Booz Allen Hamilton, ForumOne, Avar Consulting and ICF International, created a vendor dashboard using GSA data, enabling procurement officers to quickly and easily search and identify small business, minority-owned and other special categories of vendors, as well as quickly see issues with vendors.

The second team, composed of members from Booz Allen, CRGT, Ventera, B&A and Georgia State University, took a much broader approach to a GSA problem.

The team took Public Building Survey information from the GSA’s thousands of buildings nationwide, scrubbed the data down to the useful elements, and ran it through regression analyses.

They looked for links between maintenance expenditures and tenant satisfaction (there weren’t statistically significant correlations because the data pool was small), but the killer app was just that: an app (or two).

Gene Chorba, senior computer science major at Georgia State, built the framework for two apps that the GSA could potentially employ, one for tenants and one for building managers, to track building complaints, maintenance requests and more, and automatically feed the information into GSA’s buildings database.

That final piece wowed the judges.

“I’m going to tear up the contract that we were going to give to a contracting firm,” said Phaedra Chrousos, chief customer officer at GSA and one of the Hackathon’s judges, in response to Chorba’s apps.

“You can never say no to more data,” Chorba said afterward, saying he was disappointed with how little of the GSA building data was actually complete and usable, so he prioritized creating a method to funnel more useful data into the system.

For both teams, the prize was the same: $1,000 for each member.

The Washington Post heaped snarky condescension on the event last month, noting that $1,000 isn’t much money and that participants were being asked to hand over all the rights to their work to the GSA.

“I’m not going to kid anybody, $1,000 is not like winning the lottery,” acknowledged GSA CIO David Shive prior to the event.

The award structure may occupy a strange middle ground between volunteerism and lucrative, but Shive said it was structured that way for a reason.

“When you ask for free stuff, you typically get the quality associated with free stuff,” he said. “We wanted to ensure we attracted legitimate people who are not only interested in solving a problem, but will also put their best foot forward.”

Many of the people who turned up for the event, however, didn’t cite the prize money as their motivating factor.

For Chorba, the event was just one of many hackathons he’s attending to make connections as he takes the leap from college into the professional world.

Booz Allen’s Michael Bray, one of Chorba’s teammates, said half a dozen Booz Allen employees came out to the event because “we like this kind of stuff, it’s a fun challenge and you get out of the office for a day.”

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