Reflecting on the Mitacs Policy Hackathon

What do scientists, policy analysts, professors, and public servants have in common?

No, the answer isn’t a lack of a social life or an increased likelihood of being a Wikipedia editor — it’s a common interest in the effective communication of ideas and knowledge across diverse sectors and stakeholders. But what does that actually mean?

In a world of increasing complexity, the ability to access, interpret, and disseminate credible knowledge and information is critical. Technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and big data are poised to revolutionize how we process information and make decisions. At the same time, current structures for sharing information and communicating knowledge risk falling behind.

Government departments are often accused of being “silos,” meaning they’re not effectively sharing information or knowledge with other departments. Networks between policy makers and academic researchers are limited at best. And in a post-truth era, evidence-based research competes with other claims (fake news!) that can affect public opinion and potentially influence policy makers.

With these challenges in mind, Mitacs hosted a Policy Hackathon (aka PoliHack) earlier this month. Bringing together a diverse group of experts from across multiple sectors, as well as Mitacs’ Canadian Science Policy Fellows, participants worked collaboratively to explore ways of overcoming the challenges of delivering scientific evidence to policy makers in a world of information abundance.

Working in groups, participants focused on one of three approaches:

  • Safeguarding the motivation of decision makers to use scientific evidence
  • Designing knowledge infrastructure for scientific evidence
  • Quality assessment processes to screen scientific evidence.

Mitacs Policy Hackathon / Marathon d'élaboration des politiques

The format allowed for a free exchange of ideas. Participants’ range of skill sets and backgrounds allowed each group to view challenges and opportunities from multiple perspectives. Following an intense day of brainstorming and troubleshooting, the groups presented their ideas to an audience of senior public servants, private-sector representatives, and a range of individuals from academic and non-profit backgrounds.

“The idea was to do something a little different,” explained Rachael Maxwell, who leads the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship Program and organized the PoliHack. “We wanted to not only convene individuals from different backgrounds to discuss the issues, but we also wanted them to come away with fresh ideas that they could potentially take back to their workplaces.”

Although every group developed unique ideas and arrived at distinct conclusions, they did agree that current processes for connecting policy makers with scientific knowledge are insufficient for dealing with complex, intractable issues in a timely and coordinated manner. New ways of engaging with experts across diverse backgrounds and disciplines are needed to foster innovative policy responses to pressing issues.

At the start of the PoliHack, participants were asked if they had participated in a hackathon before, and no one raised a hand. By the end of the day, participants I spoke with were excited by the utility of the format, with some expressing a desire to utilize the hackathon format in resolving challenges faced by their own departments, businesses, or organizations.

Hopefully, hackathons and other interactive, multi-sectoral approaches to problem solving will become more and more common as scientists, policy analysts, professors, and public servants recognize the value of collaboration in a complex world. 


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