Lincoln Labs held its first hackathon this past weekend in San Francisco. While most hackathons provoke little notice except by participants, this event was not only noted in the press, but it also generated some controversy.
Dubbed a Liberty Hackathon, the theme of the gathering was “promoting liberty with the use of technology.” That’s certainly unusual for this kind of competition, but the real source of contention was the event’s sponsor, Charles Koch, the CEO of energy company Koch Industries. Among other things, Koch is well known for giving to right-of-center causes.
BuzzFeed waded into the matter, loudly proclaiming “Charles Koch Stumbles in Silicon Valley” when the event was relocated from StumbleUpon’s office due to alleged employee concerns. “…[In] the staunchly liberal Bay Area around San Francisco, the Koch name is poison,” proclaimed the article, leading the author to conclude that “the protests at StumbleUpon doesn’t [sic] bode well for the future of conservative forays into Valley culture.”
The article also categorized the event organizers as “defensive when asked about politics,” apparently because they insisted it wouldn’t be a secretive gathering to develop get-out-the-vote tools for the technologically deficient Republican Party.
So what really happened at this event? I’ll tell you. I was there. In fact, I was one of the judges. But I’ll warn you that if you were expecting backroom politics or some sort of stealth initiative by the VRWC, you’re going to be disappointed.
There was no cabal of GOP consultants on the prowl. Karl Rove never reared his head. And no one asked the participants to resurrect Orca. Instead, we had a good old fashioned hackathon comprised of a diverse group of tech entrepreneurs who banged out some great apps over 24 hours.
The participants ranged in age, race, and gender. In fact, it was easily the most gender-balanced hackathon I’ve ever been to. Demographically, the group looked a lot more like a cross-section of America than your typical Silicon Valley startup. And it wasn’t even a gathering exclusive to Republicans. Independents and Democrats were well represented — in fact, one Democrat presenter even joked that he was proof that some people in his party actually do love the free market.
The startup projects that the participants worked on weren’t an in-kind donation to the RNC, either. Most of them were for actual startup ideas, and only a handful were even political. I’ll describe a few to illustrate this point. (Note: I’m intentionally omitting most of the details so as not to impact the potential commercial viability of their ideas.)
- An online training program for foreign entrepreneurs.
- Software to help users manage their self-improvement goals.
- A platform for investigative journalists.
- An app for small business owners to report civic problems.
In case you’re wondering about the politically themed apps, they tackled problems such as casting secure online ballots and researching where your elected officials stood on various issues. That’s a pretty far cry from devising a new RNC GOTV solution.
I’d add that my fellow judges were hardly a bunch of party hacks. People like Scott Bannister, Jesse Farmer, Jonathan Reichental, and Greg Kidd are not exactly a group of patsies who were there to do someone else’s bidding. They gave the contestants frank feedback and asked tough questions during the demos. The only agenda we had was evaluating the hard work that these entrepreneurs had poured into their startup ideas over the prior 24 hours.
In short, the Liberty Hackathon looked a lot like other well-run hackathons, but the primary difference was that the organizers, participants, and judges all shared a common belief in the power of the private sector to improve peoples’ lives. The fact that Charles Koch supported the event had no impact on its proceedings.
Of course, despite what BuzzFeed and other critics might say, there’s nothing wrong with an advocate of small government like Charles Koch sponsoring this kind of event. It’s still a free country, after all. And judging from what I saw this weekend, there are many bright entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who are eager to make sure it stays free.