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Courting Suburban Civic Hackers in Illinois

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, March 11 2013

Rockford Meet-Up (Facebook/Daniel X. O'Neil)

Writing software to make cities and towns easier to live in seems like it's been a primarily urban hobby until now, with big cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia hogging all the headlines. Hoping to change that, Illinois state officials and nonprofits launched the Illinois Open Technology Challenge, promising $75,000 in prize money distributed to software developers that use state or city data in applications designed for users outside of Chicago rather than inside of it.

Contest organizers have moved the challenge's deadline back two weeks, to March 29.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D) announced the contest last October as the state's open data platform, Data.Illinois.Gov, expanded to include municipal data from four pilot communities: Belleville, Champaign, Rockford, and Chicago’s South Suburbs. The contest might generate applications focused on civic issues, but it's also intended to connect people in suburban governments with the developers who live in the communities they serve.

"In each one of these places government people and developers for the first time ... have been in the same room together," said Daniel X. O'Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative who gains his civic hacking cred, in part, by having co-founded Everyblock. "You had the mayor of Rockford talking with developers and the Rockford CTO talking about data that they had just published the same day."

The challenge will reward the developers of software applications that use data from the state's platform, the City of Chicago's open data trove or the South Suburban Atlas to address needs of the pilot communities or the state as a whole.

O'Neill said that the structure of the challenge with the meetups aims to encourage sustainable projects and to encourage participants to think beyond the contest and the prize money.

"In lots of places governments just throw data over the Socrata wall and just kind see what happens," he said. Socrata sells a platform for hosting data sets that has become ubiquitous among governments interested in offering greater access to its information.

The challenge, in contrast, will "draw all the people who matter together to talk about what the needs are," O'Neil said.

He added that the deadline extension is not due to lack of interest, although Bellville has not published much data and Chicago's southern suburbs are a conglomeration of different municipalities, which he called "a different beast" than other areas.

O'Neil said he wanted to encourage participants to think of themselves as a "sector in the technology industry" and consider how a project could generate revenue and how government data could complement other technology powered services, such as combining restaurant data with information from Yelp. Judging criteria include not only consideration of how an application addresses a community problem and whether it solves an issue in a new and effective way, but also whether there is market potential for consumers, governments or utilities and whether there is potential for funding through private sources, philanthropic sources or crowdsourcing.

The Illinois Open Technology Challenge Meet-Up community used to organize the events has 143 members. O'Neill said that organizers had also reached out to members of the university community in Champaign and people and people associated with the EIGERlab incubator in Rockford.

"For the first time people who are enmeshed in entrepreneurship inside the university went to the Champaign Public Library and interacted with the Information Technologies Director," O'Neill said.

"It's not about this particular program," he said later on in our conversation, "but about sparking connections ... that last long after this contest."

The challenge is a joint effort of the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition and the Smart Chicago Collaborative with support for the $75,000 in total prize money coming from State the of Illinois, the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition, the Chicago Community Trust, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Motorola Mobility Foundation, and Google.