Hooray, the City Wants to Redesign Its Hideous Website. Step One? Hackathon!

The glorious NYC.gov.

UPDATED 2:16 p.m.

Hackathon madness continues! And this time, it’s a civic duty. The mayor’s office is hosting a two-day hackathon the last weekend in July at General Assembly to redesign NYC.gov (or as it may soon be called, NYC.nyc), inviting developers and designers “to create imaginative, new prototypes of NYC.gov, the City of New York’s primary web presence.”

The hackathon is just a first step in the process to redesign the struggling website, which has bloated to almost a million pages, Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne said.

The goal is to rethink what a city website should be, she said, which is why Facebook, Foursquare, Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Donors Choose will be there encouraging developers to use their APIs. The designs will be judged by GA’s designer Mimi O Chun, TechStars director Dave Tisch, and Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman; prizes will be announced next week.

Going the hackathon route does more than save money for the underfunded Digital City effort. Hackathons tend to supercharge innovation, and they’re in vogue; a manic hacker sleepover at Silicon Alley’s swanky start-up clubhouse gins up way more attention and excitement than a press release announcing the city’s hired someone to redo its website.

A hackathon also has the potential to produce a better end product–if it attracts enough talent, that is.

Betabeat pinged a few developers on Gchat to ask them if they’d be participating in the hackathon.

The first hacker we asked responded by linking us to the Wired article, “Is Crowdsourcing Evil,” about how the design contest has become a well-known gimmick to trick artists (or in this case, programmers) into doing work “on spec,” i.e. creating a full design for free.

“Why don’t they just hire a designer?” said the second developer we asked.

“What do YOU think?” we fired back.

“Ha,” he said. “I’m not going, that’s what I think. Sounds like they want me to do free work for them.”

The third person we asked is a designer. “That’s certainly an interesting approach,” he said diplomatically. “The site certainly needs to be redone. It’s ugly.”

“My initial reaction was ‘no way!'” said another hacker, but he quickly reversed himself. “I might,” he said. “There’s a certain city pride there.”

Unfortunately for the mayor’s office, he lives in New Jersey–“so I feel more allegiance here,” he said. “But if there’s room to do cool stuff, then maybe.”

UPDATE: Local developer Mike Caprio was reading through the rather lengthy rules of the hackathon and noticed something odd in the criteria for submissions: “Experience – Has the Contestant designed at least one website that serves over 1 million visitors a month? Does the Contestant have the needed technology expertise? Is the Contestant affiliated with a recognized design firm?”

This criterion is weighted equally with other criteria that evaluate a participant’s portfolio, which makes the “hackathon” sound like more of a traditional government request for proposals, or RFP, just without the bid. “This ‘hackathon’ is basically already designed to only benefit certain companies (‘recognized design firms’) and allow certain people to compete. They’re not really tapping the talent of the city at all or really being open in any way; if anything, they’re creating a no bid process for giant design firms in the city to compete with each other to create designs for no pay,” Mr. Caprio said in his email.

Lame. We sent Ms. Sterne an email and will update with her response she responded here.

Hooray, the City Wants to Redesign Its Hideous Website. Step One? Hackathon!