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Hackathons as Instruments for Settlement Sector Innovation (2020)

Posted on:
August 25, 2020

This case study examines how the hackathon as an instrument can aid  settlement sectors and governments in fostering non-profit innovation to rethinking the trajectory of taking solutions to scale. It presents one practitioner’s perspective on the outcomes of two community hackathons, one exploring migration data sets and the other on language policy innovation, co-developed between 2016 and 2019  by MCIS Language Solutions, a Toronto based not-for-profit social enterprise, in partnership with various partners.


In Canada, the non-profit organizations (NPO) and settlement sectors are increasingly reexamining their responsibility for service delivery and service design. With a growing interest in understanding how to include design principles and an "innovation" mindset in addressing the long-term outcomes of social services, new instruments are introduced as a way to experiment with different modes of engagement among the various stakeholders. A recent example is the hackathon.

The aim of community hackathons or civic hacks—a derivative of tech gatherings customized to fit public engagement - is to collaboratively rethink, redesign, and resolve a range of social and policy issues that communities are facing, from settlement, the environment, health, or legal services. Although hackathons and civic hacks aspire to be democratic, relationship-driven instruments, aligned with non-profit principles of inclusion and diversity, they are also risky propositions from the perspective of the non-profit organizational culture in Canada in that they tend to lack solid structure, clear rules, and fixed outcomes. Despite the challenges, the promise of innovation is too attractive to be disregarded, and some non-profits are embarking (with or without the government’s help) on incorporating hackathons into their toolkits.


A recent government of Canada surge of interest around making the case for a nationwide innovation agenda inspired some NPOs to test new models of engagement, often mimicking the tech sector design and prototyping, while hoping to understand the scope of innovation. Broadly speaking, the scope of industry innovation is loosely defined by the Oslo Manual (OECD/Eurostat, 2019), and includes four organizational areas: culture, resources, products/services, and processes. In January 2019, while gathering feedback on sector innovation, the insights provided were clearly articulated (Senate Canada, 2019). To support the culture of innovation, the sector suggested “embedding innovation” and “having the agency” of a designated role or department. Data sharing was also identified as a primary innovation resource needing to be managed by public trusts, while products/services innovation was identified as ideal opportunities for participatory design and wider collaboration (e.g., implementing hackathons or similar methodologies).

MCIS, which stands for Multicultural Community Interpreter Services, is a service delivery driven NPO that specializes in facilitating language access to critical services. Their earlier attempts to bring hackathons to fruition was due to the absence of a mandate, budgetary constraints, insufficient access to partners in the civic tech community, and relevant data sets (Trinaistic, 2018).

The purpose of a hackathon (a portmanteau of “hacking marathon”), which has been a tool of the tech industry since the early 1990s, is to explore alternatives to existing design solutions and business as usual processes while promoting collaboration. Unlike technical hackathons—seen as a recommended part of career preparation, recruitment fairs, and an exercise in demonstrated readiness of young graduates with technical backgrounds to “netWORK” (Nardi et al., 2002)—community hackathons, sometimes interchangeably used with civic hacks, are considered to be “a subset of this trend that bring together ad hoc groups under the auspices of conceiving and prototyping technologies to address social conditions and concerns” (Lodato & DiSalvo, 2016). Being less about the technology, project pitches, and semi-finished products and more about conversations and bringing together a spectrum of people with varied professional and lived experiences, these events are meant to brainstorm on and crowdsource alternative solutions and facilitate participation by making all voices count and contribute equally.

Based on the data MCIS gathered through informal interviews and the survey of hackathon participants (primarily from non-profit sector across Ontario) in 2019,1 it is apparent that NPOs are polarized in their views of hackathons/civic hacks either as “interesting” and “promising” or “confusing” and “irrelevant.” Amongst reasons for such difference in responses are generational biases, swaying between reluctance in perceiving the usefulness of this model versus excited expectations around hackathon-based style of collaborative learning. Also, some participants are inclined to reject disrupted project management flow while others embrace non-linear prototyping and experimenting. For some, the lack of clear outcomes is distressing. For others, the ambiguity of “unfinished solutions” is wholeheartedly embraced as a tool of disrupting the business as usual. For these reasons, hackathons could be a disappointing experience for participants who are used to more structured engagement and support of the academia—and of students in particular—could be crucial in creating connections between more traditional, project management-fixed, and outcomes-heavy approaches and experiment-driven, agile, and flexible opportunities.

What did the researcher learn?

Civic, policy, or community hackathons are both spaces and instruments of rapid and equitable innovation that leverage service users’ input with appropriate technology and that are permeated by an attitude of open mindedness, positive practicality, and radical inclusion.

Lessons learned:

  • Respect organizational culture. NPOs remain people and project driven. To advance an innovation agenda and disrupt the sector’s business as usual, a better understanding of what motivates innovation is needed. If the sector perceives “space” as a key element, then the non-profit innovation policies must include “creating spaces for collaboration” alongside current suggestions such as “improving digital literacy” or “allocating a technology budget.”
  • Be sensitive to nuances of adult education, maintaining flexible, human-centered agenda and proactively managing energy in the room to maintain excitement. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be difficult, and the role of hackathon organizers is to balance the discomfort of learning attitudes, stereotypes and biases with opportunities to nurture creativity as an ability to tolerate uncertainty in a changing social environment.
  • Be an ethnographer, and don't understimate the long-term value of the seed planted. The importance of recording conversations and documenting processes and best practices will be of benefit to participants as much as to organizers. Learning new skills (technical or otherwise) is just the top of the iceberg, as the ripple effects generated by MigrahackTO illustrated (e.g., new collaborations, emerging agendas).
  • Hold space for relevant policy discussions; committing to civic education through participation: For the majority of the participants, the greatest value of a hackathon was in participating (“participating in political advocacy action”; “feeling more knowledgeable about policy innovation”).
  • Provide spaces for creativity and hope: 39% of the participants (a percentage equally distributed across all groups) commented on the importance of “creating an atmosphere where people with different skill sets can brainstorm together, create partnerships and learn about challenges” and of “inspiring participants to consider the art of what is possible and think and imagine forward-thinking solutions.”
  • Ensure space for self-reflection and growth: Participants had the scope to reflect on citizenship, justice, and (language) access, as well as on the role—and indeed responsibility—of the NPO sector in being innovative and supporting civic society at large.



This case study examines how the hackathon as an instrument can aid  settlement sectors and governments in fostering non-profit innovation to rethinking the trajectory of taking solutions to scale.