Civic-Minded Hacking

The atmosphere after a hackathon is usually one of relief and mutual congratulation—“We finally made it,” the participants say, referring both to finishing their programs and reaching the end of the grueling event—but the real work takes place in the weeks and months that follow. That’s when the programmers, designers, and subject matter experts refine their work, hopefully planting the seed for a new business or public service.

Below are four standout projects that emerged from the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH), which took place over the first two days of June in 95 locations around the United States. Besides celebrating their ingenuity, there are some lessons to be learned from each of them.

Spreading success stories in Chicago

In Chicago, an app called TowText lets users know if their car has been towed, and provides the phone number and address of the impound lot. The best part? Because of the City of Chicago has a standardized data-collection policy and a rapidly-updating database for relocated vehicles, TowText users get a message within fifteen minutes of their car being logged.

TowText was created by designer-engineer Tony Webster. Webster notes that the City of Boston has a similar program, and that he’d like to bring the idea to other cities. He says, “Insurance and repossession companies have had data streams on crimes, towing, crashes, and court data flowing from government for years. It's time to let citizens view, interact, and use the data their taxpayer dollars are creating and maintaining.”

TowText has the distinction (beyond many of the weekend’s apps) that it already works. The only reason Webster couldn’t apply the idea to his home city, Minneapolis, was that towing data isn’t available. The city, Webster notes, is not a particularly welcoming environment for civic hackers. But if apps like his take off elsewhere, it could encourage his fellow citizens in the Twin Cities (with a population exceeding 650 000) to push an open data agenda.

A little data goes a long way in St. Louis

In St. Louis, developers worked on a project that came to be called Continuum, a sophisticated phone-based system for matching local homeless people with nearby shelters.

First, Continuum takes a call from a homeless person and asks for their location. It checks an internal database to see if any shelters have the number of beds being requested, and then it contacts shelters according to their proximity to the caller, repeating the circuit until a shelter confirms. If nothing works out in the automated system, the homeless person is connected with a human volunteer.

“I'd love to see the app able to find food banks, soup kitchens, counselors, educational resources, public internet access stations, and more,” says Cape Girardeau, Missouri-based developer Kerrick Long, who worked on the app with two teammates. “I'd also like it to be accessible over voice, SMS, or the web.”

Using only minimal open data, Continuum acts as an automated mediator between city services and members of the public. The only public data this civic hack uses is location-based. As in Minneapolis, local officials would do well to remember that a little data can go a long way.

Incubating the next startup in Los Angeles

Urbanfruitly, created by a team at Los Angeles’ Hack For LA event, lets urban gardeners and their neighbors exchange produce on a peer-to-peer network. Growers can “Post a Harvest” with product, price, and expiration date information, and other users can search for specific products or check out a geo-tagged map of their neighborhood to see what’s available. For now, this software is still a pre-alpha demo, but the developers hope to have a finished product in time for the NDoCH’s 30 June final submission deadline.

LA-based QA engineer David Lai, who worked on the Urbanfruitly team, has high hopes: “I think there's nothing stopping this model from being applied to other cities and other types of product offerings.”

Without a mechanism for moderating its user-generated content, Urbanfruitly might attract illegal activity or trolls and prove difficult for the city to integrate directly.  Nevertheless, the app demonstrates how civic hackathons can also function as small business incubators that address community needs without explicit municipal support.

Lai, for his part, sounds as if he’s ready to incorporate already. “If I were to start a company today,” he says, “I would no doubt want to have the team I worked with.”

Mastering collaboration in Oakland

Not all of the NDoCH projects were created by small teams. Oakland, Calif., ever the outlier, hosted the massively collaborative ReWrite Oakland event, in which more than 70 programmers, designers, city officials, writers and local residents came together to create a new community-oriented information website for the city.

The website, called Oakland Answers, applies a search engine-like interface to commonly-asked questions about the city’s municipal code, public utilities and general information, and returns answers in plain language. The site, now up in public beta, was spearheaded by Code for America, Open Oakland, and the City of Oakland. It’s not finished yet – but as civic hacker Steve Spiker, who participated in the event and wrote a summary on his blog, said, “We’ve realized that this site (like most) should never be finished.”  

One way to improve the effectiveness of a civic hackathon is to get the city involved. Having local government officials around to tell the programmers about their needs and listen to what the programmers need from the city is essential for solving real-world problems during a madcap hackathon. ReWrite Oakland provided a great model for this kind of collaboration, and other cities would do well to take note.

Travis Korte is a Research Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Photo: Hack For Change

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