Cities hack their way to livability gains

Wed, 2014-06-18 06:00 -- SCC Staff

Mumbai hackathon photo by VictorgrigasA growing number of cities are finding they can make significant livability improvements literally overnight.

They’re doing it with hackers. While “hackers” often get a bad rap in news stories about data breaches, the term actually refers to anyone who finds ingenious ways to stretch the abilities of technology. Hackathons bring together the good hackers in an organized competition to see who can make the biggest contribution to the community in 24 hours or less.

Detroit is one the latest cities to embrace the concept. It will hold its Meeting of the Minds 2014 Hackathon, sponsored by SCC Global Partner Qualcomm, the night of Sept. 30. Teams of between one and four hackers will have all night to develop an app or website that improves the city’s livability in any way that they choose.

The next morning, judges will evaluate the work and select three finalists to present their ideas to community and industry leaders and the public. The winning team gets $5,000 cash.

In Los Angeles, a team of high school students won a recent hackathon there, developing an app that more efficiently allocates resources to homeless shelters. Homeless shelters can use the app to report their current needs. Restaurants and volunteers can then review the requests, enabling them to provide help where it's needed most.

The entire app was built in just 24 hours.

A hackathon played a key role in helping tourists who visited London during its Summer Olympics. More than 60 developers participated in a hackathon before the games, creating a wide range of apps that did everything from help tourists navigate public transit and discover places to eat that were off the beaten path to helping locals find places to avoid the games altogether. London now hosts three hackathons a year.

Toronto, which has been holding hackathons for nearly a decade now, last year held its first that was focused on education. The event attracted 83 hackers, many of whom helped educators find ways of using a variety of reward mechanisms commonly found in video games to motivate students.

Cities also gain valuable feedback on their data

In addition to the ideas, cities can also gain valuable feedback. Los Angeles tied its hackathon to the unveiling of a new city website that provides data on everything from stray animals to water usage. Few teams ended up using any of the data. It was too hard to use, they said. Since transparency is a key goal of the city, it is now working to provide the data in a more useful way.

Because the hackathons can provide rapid benefits, the events themselves are spreading rapidly. Just this month, there are more than a half-dozen events planned across North America. Some industry leaders are concerned the concept could quickly reach super-saturation.

The key to success involves understanding what your hackers want and making sure they get something out of the event. That may mean you need to also attract investors who can provide the hackers with feedback on their business plans, or undertaking a larger effort to ensure your city’s data is in a standardized format so that the hackers can easily make an impact beyond your borders.

For some hackers it’s the thrill of the moment

Still other hackers participate in the events because it allows them to be creative in ways they can’t at work. WNYC radio interviewed hackers who participated in New York City’s hackathon and found many simply find the events thrilling. Computer science researcher Matthew Ruttley told the station that hackathons are “the pulse, at the moment, of the technological golden age that we're in.”