CHARLOTTE – Can a hackathon help create a better future for Charlotte? Organizers of hackathonCLT aim to find out.

The sixth annual hackathonCLT kicks off at 5 PM on Friday, March 23 at Discovery Place Science in the heart of uptown Charlotte. Organizers expect approximately 1,000 developers, designers, innovators, and technology professionals from the region as well as from across the United States, calling this the biggest technology event hosted in the Queen City.

 In its early years, hackathonCLT organizers focused on solving a business challenge for a particular industry. For the last two years, organizers focused teams on addressing business challenges for prominent nonprofits in Charlotte, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina and Big Brothers & Big Sisters. This year, the organizing team has a slightly different focus: Charlotte itself.

 “Charlotte needs a roadmap for its next 50 years of growth and development,” says Abhishek Mehta, CEO of Tresata and the creator of hackathonCLT. “If this roadmap fails to build an inclusive, healthy, and economically viable city for all, we will fail our citizens.”

 It’s a bold vision for the 24-hour event, which will wrap up with teams pitching to win thousands of dollars in prize money and other awards in three categories. The central focus for each team will be on identifying, designing, and implementing viable solutions to enhance and expand upward economic mobility in the region.

Economic mobility lacking

 A 2014 study from Raj Chetty and other researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley revealed that Charlotte ranked 50th out of the 50 most populous commuting zones in the United States in economic mobility—the likelihood that a person born into the bottom income quintile would rise to the top quintile of the income distribution as an adult.

 In response, city leaders and activists convened the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, which published its findings and recommendations in 2017 and continues to work to address and advance knowledge, research, and programs that enhance opportunity.

After the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the ensuing civic protests and unrest, the Charlotte City Council took action as well, drafting the Community Letter to residents of the city, promising to improve trust in community policing, work to establish, build, or renovate quality affordable housing units, and help residents identify good jobs and acquire the skills to get them.

 For the first time, the City of Charlotte is involved as a key partner in hackathonCLT.

 “As instinctive problem solvers, hackers can be the perfect resource for getting to the root of an issue and utilizing data to create tangible solutions,” said Charlotte Mayor Vi Alexander Lyles in a statement. “When it comes to solving some of our city’s most complex issues, I can’t wait to see them put their talents to good use for the benefit of all Charlotteans.”

 Organizers work with sponsors to gather prize money and build the infrastructure needed to successfully run a technology-driven, 24-hour event. One of the founding sponsors, NorthState Technology Solutions, joined the event in the second year and provides the technology support for the event.

 “Charlotte is an amazing city that is undergoing rapid growth for the middle and upper class,” said Brian Cesca, general manager for NorthState Technology Solutions’ Charlotte region and a member of the hackathonCLT planning board. But growth has been largely limited to this small segment of the population, and not spread across the entire community, he added.

 “Solutions coming out of the hackathon could prove to be very valuable to the City of Charlotte,” said Cesca, “as means of helping people in the Charlotte community who may otherwise be left behind as the rest of the city continues to prosper.”

 Hackathon tracks

Teams will compete in three categories: HACK, CODE, and freeSTYLE.

 The HACK category demands hacking, coding, and analytical talent. Winners in this category will be judged on the quality of their predictive models and the scalability of their code that successfully addresses the challenge of upward economic mobility. This year’s award will be $10,000.

 The CODE category requires building an application, website, or other technology product that can enhance economic mobility for residents in the Queen City. Teams are evaluated on the quality of the code itself. This year’s award will be $5,000.

 The freeSTYLE category rewards creative thought and actionable research gathered through potential user interviews. For teams to win in this category, they’ll also need to demonstrate that their idea to spur opportunity in Charlotte has a viable business model. This year’s award will be $2,500.

 Final pitches will begin at noon on Saturday with awards presented at the end.