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Aaron Williams
Aaron Williams | VP of Marketing, Civis Analytics

Civis Analytics has a long history of applying its engineering acumen to solve urgent client problems. Members of the Civis government team recently put that same acumen to use to address an internal dilemma: how to foster a greater sense of community among staffers working remotely due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

“There was a need percolating through Team Gov for some sort of activity allowing us to spend time together, and to get to know the people you don’t typically spend time with,” says Iñaki Sagarzazu, an applied data science lead at Civis, noting that many colleagues miss the familiarity and ease of collaborating in an office environment. “The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone.”

Sagarzazu believed that a virtual hackathon — a timed competition where participants collaborate to build proofs of concept and minimum viable products tackling a pre-defined problem — might be just what the doctor ordered, especially for a team with a track record of seizing opportunities to experiment and innovate. 

“We like to solve problems by coding,” Sagarzazu says. “At the same time, we’ve been chatting with our business development team about assets they could show to prospects. I thought ‘Can we do something that’s both things — something that’s fun and about team-building, but also something that can serve an additional purpose?’” 

Sagarzazu proposed a daylong hackathon event requiring teams to tackle common public sector issues, leveraging technologies integrated into the cloud-based Civis Platform in hopes of generating prototype approaches that could be used in real-world conversations with prospective clients. 

“For each of the teams, we provided a hub in Civis Platform to work on, and pointed them to data resources specific to the problem they were trying to solve,” Sagarzazu says. “They had a schema to organize all their data, and they were asked to use Platform’s Folders functionality to organize all their scripts and notebooks and everything else they did. There was also a GitHub repository for code sharing and version control.”

Here are three team-building takeaways from what transpired.  

1. Get everyone involved.

Participants were grouped into four different six-person teams: Cinnamon Roll, Irish Tea Cake, Coffee Cake, and Atomic Cake, respectively (a naming device inspired by the television reality series The Great British Bake Off). Sagarzazu created a matrix categorizing all staffers according to their current project manager and teammates, mixing and matching personnel to assemble team rosters equal in organizational structure and skills makeup (i.e., each team had a project lead, senior and junior applied data scientists, and so on). 

“Team-building started from having everybody participating — everybody at every level of Team Gov, in some form or other,” Sagarzazu says. “This was an opportunity to know and collaborate with a different group of team members than our usual project assignments.”

2. Enable cross-team learning.

The hackathon presented a unique opportunity for Team Gov’s business development managers [BDMs] and solution architects to see up close and personal how data scientists, data analysts, and data engineers work to solve problems using Civis Platform tools, Sagarzazu explains. 

“The interaction between different people was important. The junior applied data scientists don’t get to interact much with the sales team, and the sales team doesn’t get to see our engineers and data scientists working. Everyone enjoyed seeing how all the pieces of the team come together.”

3. Creativity and collaboration are more important than competition.

Each of the four teams tackled a different problem: 

  • Team Cinnamon Roll was tasked with ensuring equitable access to a community’s recreational facilities by conducting an analysis of its current infrastructure and users, with an emphasis on determining an equitable distance from residents’ homes to parks and recreational sites, as well as identifying the populations currently served or underserved by these facilities. The team was given a plethora of resources, including datasets containing information on playground sites, properties managed by the parks and rec department, and user demographics, in addition to access to the community’s open data hub. 

The image below depicts some of Team Cinnamon Roll’s findings: 

Scatter plot charts showing the difference between non-white households and local medium income averages of park access
  • Team Irish Tea Cake was instructed to deliver location-specific information to forewarn firefighters responding to 911 calls of the risks they may face at emergency sites and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The team was given datasets containing information on area building and property violations, as well as access to the community’s open data hub.  
  • Team Atomic Cake was told to develop a process ensuring that tickets created from a city’s 311 service request calls are answered and resolved in a timely and equitable manner throughout the community (a particularly pressing challenge for the Streets and Sanitation department, which receives the largest number of requests). The team was given datasets containing information on the city’s 311 activity, and access to its open data hub.  
  • Team Coffee Cake was required to analyze energy efficiency across a city’s buildings, looking at energy use over the years with a particular focus on identifying the most inefficient sites. Efficiency was evaluated using the Energy Use Index, defined as the energy consumption per unit conditioned floor area. The team was given datasets encompassing the city’s building energy benchmarking and performance ranges by building type for each year between 2015 and 2019, as well as building permit data and access to its open data hub. 

The image below depicts stages in Team Coffee Cake’s analysis: 

Energy usage charts based on building type and neighborhood

“Everyone had to figure out as a team what the solution was, how to go about it, and who would do which part. They had to do some project management, and then say ‘How do we sell this?’ or ‘How do we present this?’” Sagarzazu says. “There’s a little bit of data, a lot of thinking, and a lot of processing, and everyone really enjoyed being able to think about a problem from beginning to end. It was competitive, but because the problems were different, the solutions had to be different, and the level of competition diminished.”

Platform made it possible for the far-flung members of each team to tackle all facets of their assignments in one place, Sagarzazu states. 

“You can load different types of data, you can work with geospatial data, you can build scripts and notebooks to analyze, clean, and prep the data, you can collect those scripts into workflows, and you can produce the reports that show the results. And you can do all this in a controlled environment,” he explains. “Platform enabled people in different geographical places to collaborate so seamlessly by providing not just the cloud environment to work together, but also by providing the tools and resources needed to carry out the analysis. It’s a very versatile tool.”  

At the conclusion of the hackathon, each team was asked to deliver a five-minute presentation on its efforts, with senior Team Gov members judging the results on the following criteria: 

  • Business value (Can this solution be put in front of a potential client? Do the slides tell a story about the problem/challenge, the solution, and why it matters?)
  • Usage of Civis Platform (Does the solution use and showcase different aspects of Civis’s technology?) 
  • Technical Difficulty (Is the solution technically interesting or challenging? Were there any obstacles to surmount when building it?)

In the end, Team Atomic Cake was declared “Most Fully Baked,” receiving the highest score from the judging panel for developing a Shiny app allowing workers in cities like Chicago to more efficiently direct 311 equity improvement efforts and track how well those efforts are faring (see image from their presentation below). 

Heat map of Chicago 311 response times by neighborhood

“Everyone loved the awesome solutions people came up with,” Sagarzazu says. “We realized we’re a wicked smart team.”

Team Gov is still exploring how it might use the materials generated from the hackathon. “Can we make these assets demo materials? It could help our solution architects, or help our BDMs for sales,” Sagarzazu says. “If there’s an additional value to what was produced, that’s the cherry on top.” 

In the meantime, Sagarzazu is hopeful the hackathon will become an annual or even twice-annual event. “Maybe it’s a companywide event next time,” he says. “There are a lot of possibilities.”