Houston officials know there are gobs of government data no one uses, maps no one can find, civic-minded residents' skills left untapped, and they are hosting a second annual "Open Innovation Hackathon" this weekend aiming to fix that.
Beginning at noon Saturday and continuing Sunday at Houston Technology Center, 410 Pierce, software developers, designers and data analysts are invited to pitch ideas, team up and develop new websites, mobile apps and data visualizations targeted at civic issues.
The event coincides with the National Civic Day of Hacking, a string of worldwide civic innovation events.
Houston last year launched a data portal containing datasets ranging from code enforcement violations and fires to taxis, planned land developments, alcohol permits, parking citations and radioactive waste sites, all available for public download and use.
"The city is not only interested in sharing our data to help entrepreneurs and the community, but we also look forward to seeing high-impact projects that we can implement within city government to solve our problems and better serve the citizens," Mayor Annise Parker said in a release.
Last year, more than 200 people attended the inaugural hackathon and tackled about 20 projects, two of which are live on the city's website.
Budget Bootcamp allows citizens to interact with the city's revenues and spending, understanding trends over time and where tax dollars go. The 311 Performance Dashboards help residents understand which areas of the city see what types of calls for service and evaluate how quickly those complaints are addressed.
The data is exhaustive; you can learn, for instance, that citizens in north Houston's District B typically place more calls than those in all other districts seeking to have the city come collect dead animals - 530 so far this year.
An application related to the city's bike routes also was completed, but more work in that area is expected this year.
"I'm hoping the hackathon produces apps that can be used all across the city and that we're able to on-board more apps than we did last time," said Kelly Dowe, the city's budget chief. "That's really our focus this time, getting more apps rolled out across the city."
Organizers have identified about 20 projects that reasonably could be completed in a weekend, such as providing the public easier access to restaurant inspection reports.
Another example would be a system to invite citizens to "adopt" public infrastructure; in Boston, for instance, an Adopt-a-Hydrant app lets residents sign up to shovel out fire hydrants after snowstorms.
Participants' own ideas also are welcome, said Jeff Reichman of January Advisors, one of the firms supporting and organizing the event.
Other ideas in the works, Reichman said, include a cycling-related app that maps cyclists' actual travel routes, with the data sent to the city so planners can decide where best to invest in creating more bike-friendly streets, and an app that scrapes social media for mentions of food poisoning, enabling health department workers to follow up, bolstering restaurant inspections.
"There's a lot of wonky data apps that strike to the heart of how the city can do business, and then there's also a lot citizen-service apps that improve the quality of life for residents," Reichman said. "We want start thinking about all the different things the city does on a daily basis and how we can use some creativity and some technology to help them do their jobs."
Hackathons are good for showing what is possible, Reichman said, but not necessarily for executing the idea immediately. He said it will be interesting to see how partially finished ideas from last year will return this weekend.
"Obviously, we'd love to implement as many useful projects as possible, but we try to set the expectation that the Hackathons are both a learning experience and an eye-opening experience as to what's possible," he said.
"It's also really hard to build something in 24 hours that's a finished product."
Dowe said the budget bootcamp site lets citizens and City Council members understand the spending plan much better than the city's published, two-volume budget book does. The idea, he said, is to apply the same improvement to other activities.
"We've been struggling for a long while to make the budget book more understandable," he said. "The answer was, 'Don't make the budget book more understandable, use technology to build a whole different way of looking at the budget.' It takes outsiders sometimes to say, 'Here's a whole different way of doing what your department is trying to do.'"
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