December 14, 2011

By: Bernadette Samson

On the weekend of December 10-11, CityCampSF (via GovFresh) hosted a hackathon to get San Francisco’s innovators, data junkies, public policy lovers and web developers together for a weekend of innovation. Armed with laptops, power strips, a kitchen full of snacks and various sites of government data, CityCampSF’s Hackathon-ers began on their 24-hour-long mission to use open data to make San Francisco a better place to live.

Using Web 2.0 Tools To Connect And Innovate Gov 2.0 Tools

While the hackathon had its home base in the Granicus headquarters in the SOMA district, many of the participants actually worked remotely and communicated with their team mates via emails, Twitter and Skype, in addition to a variety of web 2.0 tools.

In another example of using 2.0 tools to innovate government, hackers brought together Gov 1.0 public hearings and text messaging communication tools that led to the texting app that sends users text message alerts whenever there is an upcoming public hearing on a topic of interest. (Kind of like a StumbleUpon for public hearings!)

Lack Of Accessible Data Is A Barrier To Innovation

San Francisco needs more easily accessible data portals, like the Open Ethics App that CitiReport’s Larry Bush envisions, to make data available in real-time and in a format that developers can actually use. One of the hackathon’s hosts, Adriel Hampton, encountered the issue of incomplete data sets and also various pieces of data sprinkled around many different websites. Having the data in one place or at least more easily located to helps San Franciscans see the whole picture, not just snapshots. Furthermore, some of the data had to be Sunshined from the government departments directly, meaning some weekend data warriors had to put their projects on hold until they could get a response.

In addition to a time-consuming process for accessing data, the hackathon-ers also discovered the rich amounts of information (such as the “geospatial-data rich MXD format files” of foresting plans) that were actually reformated into PDFs that made them difficult to repurpose for apps!

In fact, we at Reset encountered the same problem while running our tow app contest. In order to gather the tow-away zone data for app developers to use, we had to Sunshine it from the city across multiple departments. After getting the data, we then had to manually transcribe the data from a PDF file of sentences into an Excel file of useable data for developers. Imagine all the time that could’ve been saved had the City stored and provided the data in a useable format in the first place!

Other CityCampSF Hackathon Discoveries

While not data-specific, I did have an amazing two-hour discussion with one hackathon member about housing policy. Even though her project idea did not come into fruition (it was more of a policy initiative than a weekend app project), it was very eye opening to witness the need of everyday San Franciscans to simply be heard. This brings into mind the importance of bridging the digital divide and also pushing for YouTube testimonies in City Hall meetings to help people feel heard and to allow them to voice their concerns at a relevant outlet.

We can learn a lot from the ups and downs of the CityCampSF Hackathon — from the importance of useable data to the convenience and connectivity of our many tools of communication to the need for San Franciscans to even just be heard. One of the many strings that ties all of these lessons together is that we are living in a quickly growing and changing world and we certainly need more people to get involved in order to even fathom using these technologies for the greater good. All the different people with their wide variety of skill sets working together brings a synergy that can help change our government from Gov 1.0 to Gov 2.0 and our city from City 1.0 to City 2.0.

What open data projects would you want to work on at a hackathon? Let us know!