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hackathon

Making open data better

Some positive news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston leaders in the last year or so have cheered the promise of “civic hacking,” pushing to make the mountains of data the city collects accessible to tech enthusiasts capable of building programs to help citizens better understand and interact with their government.

Two “hackathons” and a few dozen “app” ideas later, however, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Officials and local programmers alike hope a new “Open Data Policy,” enacted as an administrative procedure by Mayor Annise Parker late last month, will change that. The policy mandates citywide cooperation with a task force that will decide what to release and how to keep it up-to-date. The procedures also require all future city technology contracts to allow for the free release of records in a useful format, such as a spreadsheet rather than a PDF.

“Right now we have a coalition of the willing,” said city Finance Director Kelly Dowe. “We’re trying to create broad participation. It’s encouraging now that every department in the city had representation on the creation of this. What you see here is a level of commitment, by signing off on this, to work with the administration and put this data forward.”

It would be inexact, perhaps, to highlight this “coalition of the willing” or reveal the departments being territorial with their records; some collect more information than others, and some have more antiquated records systems than others.

Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors, said the quality and relevance of the datasets are what matter, not the volume. Still, gaps are noticeable: The city’s existing Open Data Portal, launched for the hackathons, shows the planning department boasts 48 datasets and the regulatory department 21, while the municipal courts and the city’s airport system each has posted one. The portal holds information on everything from code enforcement violations and taxis to alcohol permits and radioactive waste sites.

The new policy calls for an advisory board to be formed within 30 days and to have open data standards drafted within 90 days, guiding all city departments in complying with the directive. The task force, Dowe said, will start by identifying the information citizens are most interested in and how best to unleash it.

I’ve written about Hackathons before. There’s a lot of value in making city data available to app developers in a format they can use. For one example of the possibilities, consider this from San Antonio.

The City has paired up with a mobile application company to help drivers find and pay for downtown parking spots in San Antonio. On Oct. 23, Pango will release an app for San Antonio that enables drivers to find available parking before they reach their destination. Pango is considering the introduction a mobile payment option in the future.*

The city is sharing the data it collects from parking meters for use on the app, which updates every five minutes. That means every spot with a parking meter will be mapped out as available or not on the phone, potentially eliminating the sometimes fruitless, frenzied scramble to find a parking spot, clogging up streets.

Would you like to have something like that in Houston? With this Open Data policy, it could happen.

Hackathon II: Son Of Hackathon

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City of Houston will host its second annual “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 31-June 1 at the Houston Technology Center. This year’s Hackathon is also part of the National Civic Day of Hacking series of civic innovation events being hosted across the globe during the weekend. A hackathon is an event in which software developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate intensively on data and software projects. Over the course of the weekend, Houston’s “civic hackers” will pitch ideas, form teams and develop innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and city problems.

“Last year’s inaugural Hackathon attracted over 200 attendees, reinforcing why Houston leads the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth,” Mayor Parker said. “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.”

The City has identified nearly 20 “weekend projects” that a team of software developers, designers, analysts and others could reasonably complete, ranging from an Adopt-a-Hydrant app that allows citizens to adopt city infrastructure to a project to better share restaurant inspection information with the public. To help participants prepare for these projects, datasets have been made available on an interim open data portal. Participants can also work on their own project ideas at this free Hackathon event and submit their work for review by judges on Sunday.

“Last year’s Hackathon demonstrated how creating a dialogue between City officials and the region’s technology and start-up communities can create success both inside and outside City government,” said City Council Member and Hackathon Co-Chair Ed Gonzalez. “That success has been really important to how we’re thinking about technology inside the City of Houston and in the community.”

The City has implemented two projects through its civic innovation efforts – Budget Bootcamp and the 311 Performance Dashboards – and its IT staff has also benefited from the exposure to new technologies and different development techniques. Last year’s Open Innovation Hackathon featured over 200 attendees and over 20 team project submissions. Citizens interested in learning more about the event are encourage to view last year’s recap video.

Further information about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon, as well as registration information, is available at: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/.

See here and here for the background. The Hackathon site notes that you don’t need to be a developer – designers and graphic artists are needed, too – you don’t have to have a team put together – they can hook you up if you would like that – and you don’t even need your own idea – they have plenty of samples to choose from. The Open Data Portal is here, so go check that out as well to see what datasets are available to you. Some cool ideas came out of this last year, and there’s plenty more to do, so go give it a try. See here for more on how last year’s Hackathon went down.

First Hackathon project released

Cool.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Budget Bootcamp, a new city website application that provides easy access to city budget information, is the first Houston Hackathon project to become reality.  Budget Bootcamp is hosted on the Finance Department’s website and provides citizens an educational walkthrough of the City’s budget data – both for the recently adopted Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, as well as all adopted budgets since Fiscal Year 2010.

“We’re proud to announce the implementation of Budget Bootcamp,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Following the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2014 Budget on June 19th, this data visualization provides our citizens a great educational tool for understanding City finances. The Hackathon was a fantastic way to engage citizens and expose the City to new ideas and uses of our data.”

“Budget Bootcamp has something for every budget policy-wonk. Whether you want to break down our revenues for FY14, see the trends over time, or see how the city’s taxpayer-supported General Fund transforms from revenues into department expenditures, this application is a terrific step in terms of financial education and transparency,” City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.  “We’re excited to implement additional Hackathon projects developed over the coming months as well.”

The City of Houston hosted a 24 hour “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 17-18 at the Houston Technology Center and at Start Houston. The event offered software developers, designers, and data analysts to collaborate on data and software projects. Over 24 hours, Houston’s “civic hackers” pitched ideas, formed teams, and developed innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and City problems.

The City is expecting to implement a handful of additional Hackathon projects in the coming months, as well as continuing to invest in the Houston Data Portal that was set up for the Hackathon.

Further details about the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon event can be found at the event website: http://www.houstonhackathon.com/

See here for the background. You should click on that Budget Bootcamp link if you want to understand the city’s finances better – the spreadsheet they’ve created really breaks it down for you. Now if someone is working on better bike maps, I’ll be very happy.

The Houston Hackathon

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City of Houston will host a 24-hour “Open Innovation Hackathon” on May 17-18 at the Houston Technology Center and at Start Houston. A hackathon is a day-long event in which software developers, designers, and data analysts collaborate intensively on data and software projects. Over 24 hours, Houston’s “civic hackers” will pitch ideas, form teams and develop innovative new websites, mobile apps, and insightful data visualizations to address community and city problems.

“Houston leads the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) job growth, and we want to leverage local talent to produce outcomes,” Mayor Parker said.  “Everyone involved has worked very hard to define high-impact projects that solve our problems and that can be completed in 24 hours.  We want to use the applications and insights that are created at the Hackathon as soon as possible.”

Mayor Parker also announced the launch of the City’s Open Data Initiative, a program that puts public city data in the hands of citizens. The open data originating from dozens of city systems will be critical for the civic hackers in using technology to build tech solutions that solve city problems.

“We’re really excited that Houston is taking this historic step toward liberating data,” said City Council Member and Hackathon Co-Chair Ed Gonzalez.  “Hackathons are a great way to engage citizens and start a dialogue between City officials and our talented analytical and software developer communities.”

Preparation for this initiative and the Hackathon involves publishing data on a publicly accessible website.  Over the last three months, the City has identified more than 25 “weekend projects” that a team of software developers, designers, analysts and others could reasonably complete, ranging from a Houston bike app that displays all bike lanes, trails, B-Cycle kiosks, and bike shops to dashboards that show citizens how the city is performing and where it can do better.

While Houston’s Open Data Initiative is modeled after programs in New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Palo Alto, Houston will also include a STEM outreach component designed to teach children across the city about career options.  “Sometimes, just talking to a successful software developer can inspire a child to pursue a career in technology,” Council Member Gonzalez said.

The city is expecting strong turnout from citizens, corporate participants, and members of Houston’s startup communities.

More information, including some sample projects and the form to enter, is here. The open data portal on which these and other apps will be built is here, though it appears to be not quite finished yet. Making this kind of data publicly available, and in a standard format, is the key. It should spur innovation even in the absence of a hackathon, though that’s a pretty good way to kick things off. I’m especially delighted to see the shoutout about bike maps, since I have whined before about how crappy the current maps are. I look forward to seeing what comes out of this.