Pennsylvania's State Hackathon Gears Up for Pitch Day

Code4PA features statewide data sets, collaboration and reach.

by / October 30, 2017
Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill detailing stricter insurance and reporting requirements for autonomous vehicles. David Kidd/e.Republic

Code4PA, Pennsylvania’s statewide hackathon, features increased data sets released by the state, as well as collaborations between academia and private companies.

On Saturday, Nov. 4 a total of 22 teams of participants will pitch projects created during the hackathon — which convened the weekend of Sept. 29 before sending teams to work for the next month — to a panel of judges who will determine which grand prize winner will be recognized by the governor’s office. Julie Snyder, Pennsylvania’s director of the Office of Data and Digital Technology, said she was impressed by the work and is hopeful some will evolve into lasting civic tech tools capable of improving government and leading to better quality of life for residents of the state.

The projects are diverse in scope. Whereas some hackathons have evolved to have a hyper focus on specific societal challenges, Pennsylvania’s statewide event features a broad scope after the release of more data sets to guide the work. This marked the first full year that the state government data portal, data.pa.gov, has been active, and the number of available data sets grew from 11 to 98 by the time of the hackathon.

“To further enhance that initiative, we knew that’s just one piece of transparency, but to really achieve the governor’s goals we wanted to host a hackathon based on all of the commonwealth’s data, since we have such a wealth of data in all our agencies,” Snyder said.

In time for the hackathon, the state released new data on historical markers, education, and water quality, among others. Many of the projects that will be presented took advantage of this info, including an augmented reality concept that uses historical tour data, and a predictive model that uses crash data to pinpoint dangerous intersections for motorists and cyclists.

Another goal of the hackathon was to include multiple cities state. To this end, the event involved teams in two locations — one at Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, Penn., and the other at that school’s branch campus in Philadelphia — connected by Cisco’s Virtual Classroom tech, which is essentially a more comprehensive version of standard video conferencing, one that surprised hackathon participants by working flawlessly, making for richer relationships between participants in both locales.

Pat Woods, the communications lead for the civic tech group Code for Philly, said there was a point when the technologists sort of looked at each other and at the video feed, realizing it had all gone really well, that there hadn’t been any instances of lag time, giving rise to increased productivity. With that in mind, organizers are now considering incorporating technologists from Pittsburgh into next year’s event.

The key to the success, Snyder said, was studying hackathons done in a variety of arenas — civic tech, business and academia, namely — and then merging the best attributes from each.

“We just merged it all together into one big, happy hackathon,” Snyder said.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.