New Jersey Municipalities Seek Sustainability Solutions in Tech Competition

Sustainable Jersey's Coding for Community contest will generate new tools for local municipalities seeking tech solutions to their environmental issues.

by / February 9, 2017
Newark submitted requests for a number of projects, including an effort to get a handle on the pervasive issue of abandoned properties in the city. Flickr/Peter V Banyard

One New Jersey nonprofit is putting a green spin on the civic tech competition.

Sustainable Jersey recently launched Coding for Community, a contest that will pair at least 100 coders, programmers and designers with local municipalities seeking tech solutions to their environmental woes.

More than 20 towns and cities have submitted requests for help on a range of sustainability projects. The competition, which runs through March, should generate new tools to address these issues, while also laying the groundwork for future cooperation between the civic and coder communities.

“We want to build a network between the technology community and the municipalities, so that when the municipalities have an issue there is a way for them to match up with technologists from around the region,” said Lauren Skowronski, program director for community engagement at Sustainable Jersey.

AT&T is providing $10,000 in prize money. The winning team will receive $8,000 and a runner-up will get $4,000. The first-place municipality will get $2,000 to implement its project and $1,000 will go to the second-place team.

Vacancy signs

Newark submitted requests for a number of projects, including an effort to get a handle on the pervasive issue of abandoned properties in the city. Some 2,000 to 3,000 of the city’s 48,000 parcels are without active ownership: They’re an eyesore and a breeding ground for crime.

“We have data on all the abandoned properties, the exact address, the parcel information, the ownership information, the last sale price,” said city CIO Seth Wainer. “Now I want to have a way for a resident to see all those abandoned properties on a map, a way for them to tell us what properties they are interested in.”

In his vision, residents could easily navigate an interactive map and use it as a means to make the city an offer if they want to buy. That’s something that cannot happen in the present system.

“We hear people all the time asking where all the properties are that are in distress," he said. "The system is too opaque right now, so we need a low-cost way to create a market for these properties, a way for residents to feel that they have some control over what is going on in their neighborhoods.”

Wainer could put out an RFP and find a vendor to tackle this, but that’s pricey and time consuming.

“The way the government buys technology is bad. If you hire someone, they want to do it soup-to-nuts, it’s expensive, it takes too long. This way we get a small prototype, something to try right away. We also get the community involved, people who care about technology and care about government,” he said, adding that there's nothing wrong with the big companies like IBM and Microsoft, "but in the day-to-day world, people get excited about their new apps, the small new tools that people built quickly. That’s where the government needs to pivot toward, and competitions like this help to drive that."

Garden variety

Maplewood, N.J., a town of about 9,000 households, supports a volunteer Green Team as a committee within the township. That group successfully advocated for a summer ban on leaf blowers as a way to cut greenhouse emissions. But people still need to get rid of their leaves.

Team members are hoping the coding competition can help with that. They've asked for an online interface that will quickly match homeowners with service providers willing to rake.

“This is a common technology application but it isn’t something our team knew about,” said Green Team Chair Tracey Woods. “We had thought of this idea, but until the challenge was announced, we hadn’t even thought of it as a technology problem. By posing the question, the challenge opened the door for us to think of this problem in a different way."

Other projects on the table span a diverse range of needs.

  • Camden wants to improve its street tree inventory, but it needs a more efficient way to survey and get baseline data. Crowdsourcing would help. It’s seeking a virtual map and mobile app to track GPS location, identify type of tree by leaf, and label area hazards.
  • East Orange wants to connect consumers to local produce and other sustainability tools. It has asked for a single platform that would roll together maps of community gardens and farmers markets, information on green initiatives, maybe a marketplace for solar installers and green-certified local contractors and a calendar of green events.
  • The borough of Haddonfield wants to support the efforts of local businesses that use green practices. It is looking to build an interactive map of such businesses.
  • Highland Park wants vendors at the local arts festival to realize more sales at the event. They envision a virtual shopping center that would go up for two weeks after the fair to highlight the vendors, sparking sales while building a greater sense of community.
  • Montgomery is looking for tech tools to help promote its diverse regional activities including parks, preserved open space, and an extensive network of pathways.
  • Princeton wants a “sustainability asset map,” a tool to connect volunteers and activists with organizations and individuals who are doing related work around town. It might capture data on organizations’ diverse needs and areas of focus, along with a community calendar of sustainability related events.

Sustainable Jersey is partnering on this event with the city of Jersey City, Code for Trenton, Code for Jersey City, Code for Princeton, OpenGov, the New Jersey Innovation Institute, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Sustainable Princeton. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Knight Foundation are project funders.

The competition may help to fill a critical shortfall for towns and cities looking for a technological fix to their civic woes.

“We know they are interested in using technology to better engage the public, but there are capacity issues and financial resource issues that hinder them from moving forward,” Skowronski said. “This is a way to close that gap, to get resources out to towns where they have an issue but where they can’t afford a big third-party solution.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.