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Notes From a Weekend of Cross-Country Civic Hacking

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 24 2015

Civic hackers gather at Civic Hall for CodeAcross NYC (Photo: Civic Hall)

Code for America's fourth annual CodeAcross civic hacking event took place this past weekend, February 20 – 22, bringing together civically-minded technologists, designers, activists, organizers, and city government in roughly 60 communities around the world. The organizing theme for all events was “Principles for 21st Century Government,” although events varied in terms of duration and content. From Civic Hall in New York City to the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, to the University of Washington in Seattle, people gathered for data jams, hackathons, unconferences and collaboration.

“CodeAcross isn't just 60 one-off events,” Hannah Young emphasizes in an email to techPresident. “It's the kickoff to an entire year of action for each local group. The projects and activities worked on over the weekend reflect that.”

“For example,” Young continues, “one of Code for Miami's goals for the year is to get an open data policy passed for Miami-Dade County. At CodeAcross the Brigade worked with the County to launch an open data portal with three datasets on it. Over the weekend, Code for Miami built prototypes on top of the newly released data.”

Young elaborates on the significance of this beyond this weekend:

This would be great on its own but in the context of Code for Miami's goals for the year, it's even more exciting. By showing government that there are civic hackers ready and excited about working with open data, Code for Miami is helping to pave the way for an open data policy in the future.

At some CodeAcross events, people were competing for bragging rights. At the CodeAcross NYC event, organized by BetaNYC, which took place here at Civic Hall, the Microsoft NY team—Ken Chan, Fatimah Khalid, Ady Sevy, Jenny Shore, Matt Stempeck and John Paul Farmer—took home three awards, including best in show, for their work on Athena, a open-source visualization of civic tech associations, investments and other connections between for-profits, non-profits, government entities and individuals.

"Athena is an open source, open API network graph providing insights into who's who and what's what in civic tech," Stempeck writes in an email to techPresident. "The underlying data is crowdsourced, the code is open to contributors on Github, and there's an API to support other applications and visualizations being built on top of the same database.

The Steel City Codefest in Pittsburgh had two winners. A team of three, Amy DePalma, Matthew Cipperly and Robert Collini, built a sign-in app to help organizations easily manage and follow up with volunteers. A team of five, Jenny Liu, Geoff Misek, Nate Cochran, Jessie Schalles, and Shawn Rancatore, created an app that streamlines food donation from grocery stores and warehouses for Food Rescue.

The CodeAcross Northern Virginia (NoVA) event in Arlington was one of many CodeAcross events that opted not to introduce a competitive element into the mix. However, Michelle Koeth, one of the Code for NoVA brigade organizers, writes in an email to techPresident that one project in particular received a lot of attention from fellow CodeAcross participants. One team, she says “
created a concept solution for tackling a crippling UX issue facing non-profit The Women's Center of Vienna, VA.”

“Their concept,” Koeth adds, “was to translate the current paper/book based scheduling method in use at The Women's Center with a custom Google Apps based online workflow using Google calendar and Google forms.”

CodeAcross Boston was similarly noncompetitive, but one app called MBTA Ninja or “Waze for the T” got “quite a bit of attention considering the current state of our public transportation system here in Boston,” writes Kristen Weber, one of the organizers, in an email to techPresident.

The local brigade that organized a CodeAcross event in Norfolk, Virginia, invited journalists and health and human services professionals to join their members for a discussion about opportunities and needs. “One promising idea,” Kevin Curry writes in an email to techPresident, “is link analysis of Governor of Virginia emails.”

Curry elaborates:

We know that Library of VA archives them and that reporters are interested in them. I know that link analysis of To/From can be both insightful and beautiful. One famous example, it played a key role in the Enron case many years ago. It could be very interesting when it comes to former Governor McDonnell's email.

Curry adds:

We did hack at our CodeAcross but on projects that were started many months and even years ago. One such project is our Virginia Businesses API...Virginia SCC data are abundant and public but horribly inaccessible to people and machines. Our hope is the the API will enable better analysis and apps by multiple third parties.

In Burlington, Vermont, local civic hackers presented the apps and tools they are currently developing, which ranged from an app that helps people determine whether their leftover food can be donated for human consumption, to a virtual Lake Champlain modeled in the computer game Minecraft using open data.

Finally, Hannah Young points to the Local Digital Services Census, in which residents of eighteen US cities evaluated the quality and usability of 175 city services. “This collective action helps us all understand the state of digital government across the country and identify the biggest areas to make a difference in 2015,” Young writes. “Brigades, community groups, and local government all participated in this challenge. In West Sacramento, the mayor completed the Census.”