Harnessing tech creativity to tackle policy problems, from COVID-19 to food waste

By David Donaldson

Tuesday June 9, 2020

GovHack participants working together
GovHack participants

How can tech innovators help government address big social issues? Two upcoming competitions are inviting ideas for new solutions.

Sometimes the biggest challenges require creative thinking outside the pressures of the daily grind.

Selva Murugesan

That’s the idea behind GovHack, an event that brings together multi-disciplinary teams over a weekend to create new solutions to social problems.

The teams use publicly available government data to come up with an idea addressing a challenge set by a public agency. This could be a transport problem, tailoring services to a vulnerable community, or addressing an issue in intellectual property.

“It’s a festival of ideas,” says Selva Murugesan, a member of the GovHack board.

“In 46 hours they have to come up with some kind of solution. It doesn’t have to be an app, it doesn’t have to be a website. It could be as simple as a visualisation. Some people produce artwork to raise awareness about an issue. It could be anything, as long as the solution solves the problem.

“At the end of the hackathon we invite the public agencies who gave us the challenges, and the hackers get to showcase the solutions to them. It provides public agencies with new ideas or novel ways of solving a problem.”

Some participants find new ways of using data already held by agencies.

“For example, open data portals publish where schools are located, as well as the demography of suburbs,” Murugesan tells The Mandarin.

“These citizen data scientists can take two different sets of data and write some algorithms that can show where the public agency should put the next school, where the optimal location is.”

Thanks to the pandemic, this year’s Australia and New Zealand GovHack will take place entirely remotely, over the weekend of August 14-16. This year’s themes are:

  • COVID-19
  • Bushfires
  • Economic recovery and social resilience
  • Health
  • Inclusiveness & accessibility

Murugesan expects a variety of people to participate.

“Hackers come from a wide variety of skills,” he explains. Professionals are the main group, but there’s also been a big increase in the number of students in recent years.

GovHack participants wait

There’s a lot of potential to make a difference, too.

Last year the ACT government set a challenge based around what Canberra will look like in 10 years, asking participants to come up with ideas to improve quality of life. Because quality of life is such an open-ended idea, there was plenty of room for creativity.

“In that 46 hours the hackers crunched a lot of data sets from the open data portal — from education, transport, health, social services.

“Based on the data, they came up with some measures and metrics. For example, they scraped transport data to look at commute times for people coming from all over Canberra to the city. What were their purposes? What was the commute time? How much time did people lose in traffic congestion? What does the road infrastructure look like? Can they get to amenities within 30 minutes’ travel?”

Using this data, they built indicators that allowed for comparison against benchmarks, and have now packaged them in a dashboard. Some of these indicators are now being used to inform territory government funding decisions, says Murugesan.

“They’re actually using it, which is absolutely fantastic.”

CivVic’s challenge for Victorian startups

The Victorian government’s startup agency, LaunchVic, is also looking for new solutions on a range of social issues, including infection prevention and management.

It’s the third round of LaunchVic’s CivVic Labs GovTech Accelerator program, and includes six new challenges, each supported by a public organisation. Local startups have the chance to secure up to $185k each to build a product, work with a customer and help solve some of Victoria’s most pressing issues.

The challenges include:

  • Department of Health and Human Services — How can we improve infection prevention and management in Victoria?
  • WorkSafe Victoria — How might we support gig economy workers in adopting a safe approach to work?
  • Study Melbourne — How can we strengthen social and community connections for international students studying and living in Victoria?
  • Aboriginal Victoria — How can we use innovative technology to create a living, breathing understanding of Aboriginal culture?
  • Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning + Sustainability Victoria — How might we reduce food waste from businesses in Victoria?
  • Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning — How can we understand liveability through the voice of citizens and measure Victoria’s progress toward a sustainable future?

This will provide the startup sector with up to $1.1 million at a time when the pandemic is creating difficulties for many businesses.

LaunchVic CEO Kate Cornick identified the challenge as part of the drive to give smaller businesses access to government procurement dollars.

“LaunchVic through CivVic Labs is leading the way in GovTech, by driving a practical, results-driven solution for startups to connect with a trusted customer such as the government,” she said.

The program is a partnership with the Victorian Government’s Public Sector Innovation Fund.

READ MORE: Government and startups don’t speak the same language. Kate Cornick helps them help each other, improving services and keeping jobs local

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