Community service is becoming less and less about picking up litter or planting trees in local parks and more and more about writing code. That’s why Code for America sends out teams of website and app developers around the country to find and fix local problems. That’s also why Hack for Change, with the support of the White House and a variety of public and private entities, annually organizes the National Day of Civic Hacking, bringing techies out to use their skills for the public good. (This year it's scheduled for 31 May and 1 June.) And that’s why the City of Palo Alto is holding its first Apps Challenge.
“We’re at an amazing time,” says Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer and organizer of the challenge. “We’re at the intersection of great government needs and great new technology that runs on mobile. It’s about data, the enormous amount of data that the government has accumulated over decades and is now making available for the first time. It’s about cloud access, knowing that what you need is available wherever and whenever. And it’s about people around the world that have a desire to make their communities better. You bring all these things together at an event like the Apps Challenge.”
The Challenge was open for entries in January and February of this year. Seventy-four entries came in, with 30 percent from coders under the age of 18. (Contest rules limited entrants to those aged 14 and up, or we might have seen some middle schoolers in the mix; kids code young around here.) Ten made it into the final round, including two groups of teens, and the nine finalists showed their apps at a community showcase in April, some in the prototype stage, some fully functioning. (One team had two projects selected but dropped one.)
The finalists include two pet friendly apps—Adopt Me, for tracking and sharing information on pets in shelters; and Dogs in the Neighborhood, for connecting dog owners with their peers. From the teens in the finals came Tall Tree Teens, an app to collect teen opinions on city issues, and clickPA (see video, top), an app to help teens quickly find local entertainment and events. Another finalist, Play Palo Alto, encourages civic involvement through games and challenges, while GO CO2 Free Palo Alto is an app intended to spur residents to lower their carbon footprints; BikeWatch maps bike paths, encourages bike safety, and aims to reduce bike theft; Enabled City (see video, below upper) collects and displays information about handicapped access; and The Farm (see video, below lower) connects local gardeners to help coordinate planting to better enable pollination and to share information and tools.
First, second, and third place winners will be announced on 31 May, during the National Day of Civic Hacking; they’ll receive cash prices and free legal help in filing for incorporation, should they want to turn their community service project into a company.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.