California is drying up, but the minds of its residents are still ripe for juicing. On Oct. 25, the California Government Operations Agency (GOA) announced the winners of its Green Gov Challenge, a weekend hackathon in which 14 teams drew from government data and designed simple software to solve the state's sustainability challenges. And this month, the state plans to build on its relationships with the four winning teams, which took home a combined prize of $25,000.
The first place winners, Mike Phillips and Zac Palin, created Green Buyer, a purchasing tool that helps agencies identify contracts that align with the state's mandate to purchase "environmentally preferable products" (EPP). The tool counts the dollar value of purchases that could have been made on EPP for existing contracts and provides links to those contracts for ease of use.
Second place was Brooks Newberry and Alan Mond, who created an app called NudgeSMS, a reminder app that encourages employees to limit energy and water use via intermittent text messages. Mond is known to some among Government Technology readers for co-founding MuniRent, a government equipment sharing service.
Third place was awarded to Carlo Carino and Bogdan Rau, who created smartFLEET, a data dashboard showcasing metrics around the state's vehicle fleet. Statistics like carbon dioxide output and fuel efficiency are cataloged and visualized. A searchable and sortable table of each vehicle helps with fleet management.
The People's Choice Award went to Shahram Shariati, creator of Weekend School Bus, a service that gives school buses a purpose when the kids are gone for the week. By renting the buses on the weekends to concert goers or wine tourists, the state can raise money that goes to the education system while encouraging carpooling. Though the service is not operational, the developer is looking for schools to partner with, according to the project website.
As for building on these relationships, event organizers — which include the GOA and the Department of General Services (DGS) — aren't yet sure exactly how and to what extent they will be maintained, but officials do want to keep this channel open, said GOA spokesperson Lynda Gredhill.
"It was really interesting for both the participants and for us, and we gotten a lot of good ideas in a very short amount of time," she said. "The advantage of this type of event is it fuses those in state government with new ways of looking at things, and you can't put a value on that."
One of the GOA's larger goals, Gredhill said, is how to make state government work better for its citizens. "So finding ways to communicate with them, to take ideas that they have that are useful and run with them, those are all things that this challenge is one example of."
The Green Gov Challenge was born from the California Government X-Prize bill, A.B. 2138, and is one of three contests aimed at finding new ways to reach goals around the areas of sustainability, transportation and underage drinking enforcement.
Second place co-winner Alan Mond said the event was well organized, adding that he wishes more governments would host hackathons and find ways to more easily cooperate with developers.
"It certainly opened up my eyes that the state is trying to do new things, and that's actually very exciting," he said. "But more importantly, I think just from hearing other peoples' comments, they were also very impressed that these kinds of things are starting to happen. More on the operational side of things, I was really happy to see some pretty big agencies like GOA and DGS really embracing this idea of we can use people from the outside to help us solve issues, and they don't have to be the incumbent vendors — they can be developers. And that mentality, that opening of using other methods to solve problems, I think is pretty cool."
Mond said he was drawn to the event because he was curious about what kinds of problems California state government thought were important, and because he wanted to work with government data.
"To a certain extent, a lot of people that showed up were just interested in working with government data," he said. "And as far as hackathons go, that's pretty much it. You just use it as an excuse to try out a new programming language you've been playing with, or just see if you can build something cool in a weekend. In this case, it's more impactful [than coding alone], because it's something that could potentially impact a lot of people."
The allure of government hosting hackathons is they're a relatively low-cost way to get ideas that solve critical problems. But the production involved in leading the events ensures they are less frequent and less accessible than they could be. Mond said he suggested to the state that in addition to hackathons, they also lead constant online efforts to encourage developer participation in civic challenges, similar to those led by the federal government through Challenge.gov or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
"It's a really great way to get low-cost solutions to problems," Mond said, adding that while his idea of online engagement would be helpful, the events themselves bring unique advantages too. "It's nice to have it every once in a while because there is that feeling of urgency when you're working over a weekend. You really want to get it out the door, and that's what distills the really simple elegant solutions from the ones that are super convoluted and they need more time to get drawn out. There is something about that really short period of time that you have to focus on the most basic solution that will work. But there is no reason you can't do both."
More information about all project entrants can be found on the hackathon's Github page. The data used for the contest can be found on the GreenGov Open Data Portal. Winners will attend a recognition ceremony in December.