“It felt like there's got to be something the technology and innovation community can do." -Jordan Davis, Smart Columbus

It started with a tweet. 

Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, was among the first to tap into the zeitgeist on the evening of Sunday, March 15, as Covid-19 began to shut down life as we knew it.

“Thinking out loud... @SmartCbus and @InnovateOhio should quickly organize a virtual hackathon to crowd source technology and/or policy solutions that address the challenges people are facing in this time. Thoughts!?!”

Davis recalls seeing the writing on the wall. Columbus would have to band together to get through the challenging period ahead.

“It felt like there’s got to be something the technology and innovation community can do,” Davis said. “Smart Columbus’ premise is to use technology to solve real problems, create an environment of participation among residents, so let’s put the idea out there.”

She tagged a handful of community and tech leaders and the tweet gained traction. Ohio State University students tapped the HackOHI/O community. 

By the next morning, Davis says, a Slack channel was up and running with about 120 members. By the close of business March 23, the effort had grown to 700 people ranging from students to CEOs and 20 active projects.

The team is focused on organizing and enlisting volunteers with a variety of skills, dividing the efforts into three prongs. 

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One team has set to work in assisting the Mid Ohio Foodbank with the tools it needs to manage a large volume of food distribution, accept an influx of reservations and enrollments and connect those in need with other community services. 

In another effort, the hackathon community has been unleashed virtually to solve problems with technical solutions. The nascent hackathon portfolio startup Helm is hosting a prototype website for a variety of projects. Another website, SupportColumbusEats.com, posts real-time information about the operations of local restaurants, helping local eateries who may not have the resources to update their own websites immediately.

Experts in project flow such as Open Columbus will focus on going beyond minimum viable product, providing mentoring and process support to get products deployed and used. 

A third track will focus on policy and programs, helping to organize community efforts and ideas that may not need a killer app but do need some organizational expertise.

Already more than 20 organizations from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank to TechLife Columbus, BLK hack and COhatch are marshaling resources.

“We want to be able to allow this group – they’re not just technologists, we have a professor of economics, art teachers, we want creative eager people to spend time thinking what solutions are needed – we’re hoping tech and programmatic solutions come out of here.”

The Slack channel serves as the home base, ensuring volunteers can get plugged into products matching their expertise.  

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“It’s a pretty organized effort,” Davis said. “It reminds me of Save the Crew in some ways. It’s really interesting, all of the civic organizers around innovation and hackathons, all the leaders involved are not siloed into their own communities, they’re all coming together to channel talent around this challenge right now.”

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.