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Las Vegas Eyes CES Hackathon Winners for Civic Tech Ideas

City officials have contacted two winning teams after their solutions to civic problems won the recent Smart Cities Hackathon at CES 2017.

Video-capable toothbrushes and bracelets that show the wearer’s mood may have indicated where the retail market is heading at CES 2017, but a hackathon held during the event’s final days could generate unexpected benefits for one municipality and at least two teams of winners.

More than 700 people registered and 200 checked into the Consumer Electronics Show’s Smart Cities Hackathon, two days of creating and planning for how best to visualize and capitalize on a series of civic data streams. The event, thought to be CES’ first major hackathon, generated enough interest that it’s likely to be repeated next year. But by then, Las Vegas — which offered up data streams to developers and sent its city manager to be a judge — could already be making use of the ideas uncovered.

The teams that emerged victorious on Jan. 8 were those that found solutions to modern and traditional civic issues.

Team Wingin’ It, a group of five people that included two University of Nevada at Las Vegas graduate students, won the $10,000 cash prize for its idea: an Alexa-powered skill that could quickly show Las Vegas which of its 52,000 streetlights might be out. Its members also each received an Amazon Echo. But the city of Las Vegas has been in contact too, and on Feb. 1, Team Wingin’ It will be recognized for its win by the Las Vegas City Council and give a presentation on its idea.

Like other contestants, Wingin’ It’s solution used hardware available at the event, including an Amazon Echo, a Raspberry Pi computer and IBM sensors. It used statistical analysis of two years of the city’s nighttime energy consumption data to create a list of streetlights that weren’t using energy. By identifying those lights, members were able to suggest examples that could have burned-out bulbs, malfunctioned or had their wiring stolen.

“The system automates a pull of the data from the server, runs the analysis and produces a list of faulty streetlights for Alexa to read to the traffic manager,” team members wrote in a story description that accompanied their project.

Las Vegas IT Business Partner Don Jacobson said copper wire theft — once a big hurdle to keeping streetlights lit — has declined. But the city still typically relies on resident reports and energy bills, which have a 45- to 60-day delay built in, to determine which streetlights could be out. A quicker way could be very useful, he added.

The city, which last year created an innovation district downtown to test new tech on the legendary Strip, has contacted at least two teams since the hackathon: Team Wingin’ It and Team City Guard.

Separately, while Las Vegas hasn’t adopted Alexa technology yet, the City Council has given staffers the go-ahead to explore possibly developing an app to answer frequent questions such as where to find parks and recreational opportunities. Hotelier Wynn Las Vegas has already started the initiative, Jacobson noted, announcing last month that it will install an Amazon Echo in its nearly 4,800 rooms by summer.

“This is an opportunity for the team and the city, one for us to solve our problem, and for them — I believe they’re graduate students — to take a solution that could be shopped around to any city. I’m sure any city of reasonable size is going to face the same problem we have, lots and lots of assets and not enough people to monitor them,” Jacobson said.

It’s unclear exactly what’s next for the automated streetlight analysis idea, but Jacobson said being able to quickly predict darkened streetlights could be a good fit for the innovation district. “As part of that, it really makes sense for us to go out and recruit these people who are already working independently, bring them together at City Hall,” he said, noting the city’s return on investment in such an idea could be high.

Team member Maria De Lourdes Ramos, a cum laude University of Nevada at Las Vegas graduate in 2014 with a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering, said she and her four teammates were thrilled by the win at her first hackathon.

“We’re all pretty excited. I’d love to see it implemented here,” said Ramos, who was able to skip work on a master’s and is now in the midst of a doctorate, also in mechanical engineering. “I don’t know where my doctoral work will take me, but if I can possibly work with the city of Las Vegas, I would love to.”

Members of Team City Guard may have gotten less sleep than their Wingin’ It counterparts, who had enough time to deviate from the up-all-night hackathon form to rest before their project was due. But in interviews, five of its six members were similarly bullish about winning the UL Challenge and Apple Watch Series 2 examples, for their multifaceted approach to urban safety and problem-solving.

They used Gotham, an Alexa-based tool, to aggregate open data and community feedback, creating a heat map of crimes that would show residents the safety of their surroundings, and a dashboard for residents to quickly communicate issues like a stray dog to the appropriate department — while letting officials track residents’ levels of satisfaction with their city.

Since CES, City Guard members — some of whom attend college in Dallas but have known each other since high school — have continued to analyze data, and are hopeful their ideas could find a home in Dallas if not in Las Vegas.

“Hopefully, we can implement this in other Socrata-enabled cities. It’s very scalable in that sense. It should not be too difficult to implement it here in Dallas,” said City Guard member Pablo Sarquis Peillard, a computer science major at the University of Texas at Dallas.

If a hackathon idea from any of the five winning teams is successfully piloted or implemented, Matan Bordo of ReadWrite, a media platform dedicated to the Internet of Things, which hosted the event, said it could boost interest in a sequel at next year’s CES or in similar hacks elsewhere.

“If things go well with this team and their solution and the city of Las Vegas saves money on their streetlight fixtures, I don’t see why not. You just need a proof point,” said Bordo, who worked on outreach and marketing for ReadWrite.

City Guard member Jamie Lee Gill of Milwaukee, the group’s self-described “add-on” who recently finished college, said he found the event generated an effective laboratory environment for attendees to do creative work. “The hackathon for me was actually a pretty good process in seeing how you develop one of these kinds of products,” Gill said.

Other winners included:

  • Team GuardSight won the Honeywell Challenge. Members analyzed temperature, moisture and humidity data from a Honeywell thermostat to alert residents to anomalies at home like high temperatures suggesting the possibility of a fire.
  • The Magic Smoke Replacement Team won the Intel Challenge. Its members created Convo-Care, a conversational user interface aimed at providing a better e-health-care experience.
  • Team TreeLover won the IBM Challenge. Its members created Smart City Tree Management, which uses sensors to monitor the wellness of city trees and combat air and sound pollution.
  • The A-Team won the Amazon Alexa challenge for its solution called Alfred, a way for hotels to use awareness to reduce their guests’ water consumption.
Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.