Hackathon or Block Party?

The geeks were out on the streets last Saturday, in cities and towns in 35 states. They came out to participate in the National Day of Civic Hacking, the first of what will likely be an annual event, designed to bring together the tech savvy with the creative but not-so-tech savvy to brainstorm about ways to use technology to make their communities better. There were talks, and showcases, and conversations formal and informal—and even some actual coding going on.

In my community, Palo Alto, Calif., the city closed off a couple of blocks of its normally busy downtown, and they filled with booths and bands and people, some showing off tech creations like solar powered bicycles and life sized robots, and some just taking in the scene. It was hard to tell what people were involved in official exhibits, sponsored by a local tech business or nonprofit, and what people were just geeks having fun. Were those people coding on their laptops on in that sidewalk café working on a hacking day project? Or were they just normal Silicon Valley residents going about their day? And hard to tell if the people coding on laptops here and there were hacking day participants, or just happened to be working within the general area of the hacker block party.

Inside Talenthouse, a downtown business, I heard audience members questioning a panel on civic engagement about how to get his app that uses proximity awareness to build community to scale beyond his local neighborhood. In a plaza, a group of high school students played classic rock. Inside the Patagonia retail store an architect, a land use activist, and a journalist were developing an app to help local officials gather data about the use of free street parking in certain neighborhoods, a hot topic right now.

While hackers were getting some work done, the local kids were really the ones getting the most out of the day in Palo Alto. They were fascinated by the exhibits, like the crazy data visualization project involving a line graph created by ping pong balls, clear tubes, and blowers set up by startup incubator The Hive and demonstrations of a giant geodesic walking robot. But they particularly seemed drawn by Tech Shop’s large tent, where 3-D printers went about their mesmerizing work. I’m not sure today’s day of civic hacking solved any burning problems in my community, but it likely got a few more children interested in STEM careers.  And I had to wonder how of those geeks in the streets got an idea for a new startup that day.

Photos: Tekla Perry

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