It is easy to think of hackers as criminals. It’s intuitive, maybe because of Hollywood’s depiction of hackers as invasive, ninja-like evil geniuses, who can download all of your personal data in a few minutes and ruin your life. Even the word itself sounds like a disturbance: Hack.
But at Saturday’s International Open Data Day hackathon, hosted by the city of Oakland, OpenOakland and Code for America, approximately 80 people from the Bay Area—developers, activists and government employees—came together at the 81st Avenue public library to participate in a day of “hacking” government data for a good cause. Their goal was to make it available to the public by re-organizing it and finding new ways to make it accessible.
“Hacking is basically taking something and using it in a nontraditional way, or just thinking about it differently,” said OpenOakland co-founder Steve Spiker. “Hacking government data, which is traditionally very clunky, can help to improve the city without having to go through a bureaucratic process.”
Born out of Code for America, a non-profit group that serves as a kind of digital liaison between governments and residents, OpenOakland is a group of volunteers interested in using technology to make government more accessible. The group has been responsible for the Open Government Pledge, an interactive conference called CityCamp, a new open data platform launched by the city of Oakland, and Oakland’s success in obtaining its first Code for America fellows, Sheila Dugan, Cris Cristina and Richa Agarwal, who will work to develop new informational tools for the city.
Saturday’s hackathon, held just six months after the group was formed, provided an opportunity to find out what data Oaklanders want easy access to and what projects to tackle next. The hackathon, which focused on civic engagement and government data, consisted of small groups of people collaborating to create one project or app addressing a topic of common interest in the group, such as crime, transportation, properties or education.
The event began with listening to project pitches from anyone who had one; some people had already submitted ideas on the city-sponsored website EngageOakland.com before Saturday, with posts including suggestions like “Correlate bike accidents, bike lanes and street repair history” or “Analyze AC Transit bus routes.”
Once all the ideas were written on the white board, the participants were split into groups, based on interest, to work on the projects. They dispersed to different areas of the library to hack, code, compile data, build maps and collaborate, before presenting their work—at various stages of completion—by the end of the day.
Some of those projects included a heat map–a map that represents data by color-coding it–of Oakland crime, a map that shows where owners of blighted properties in Oakland live, a list on OaklandWiki of where Oakland residents can access computers and Internet services for free, and a map with green and red circles denoting the locations from which Oakland Twitter users have recently made positive and negative Tweets, “to find out where people are in a good mood and where you should avoid people,” explained participant Davïd Bikowski. Spiker said the group is hoping to collect the projects and make them available online for the public to look at soon.
Marina Kukso, one of the lead volunteers for OaklandWiki, a related project that serves as a free online lookup for city information, said that the projects are important because this information about Oakland isn’t really provided anywhere else.
“This is local information that residents can benefit from,” Kukso said. “You can find limited data about Oakland if you Google it the right way, but you can’t find local information, like historical data or Tweet maps. That’s just not very common yet.”
Oakland was not the only city that hacked away its Saturday. February 23 was International Open Data Day, so hackathons were held around the world, from New Delhi to Ouagadougou to Rome to New York City. Tweets with the hashtag #opendataday came from Canada, Indonesia, South Korea and about 100 other countries. Schedules and presentations for hackathons around the world were stored on Google docs and shared through Twitter.
Tweets from hackathon events around the world revealed that Open Data Day participants in Cologne, Germany worked on analyzing data to create an app that would provide the real-time locations of street trams. Kathmandu, Nepal celebrated its first Open Data Day with applications developed by students using data on school sanitation and immunization information.
Oakland’s event was held in East Oakland to attract a variety of citizens, particularly those who don’t have a technical background but are interested in working to improve the city. Spiker said there were some OpenOakland members who felt that since the tech community generally lives closer to downtown, the event should have been held there. But Spiker, and others in the group, disagreed, saying that including non-tech residents was in the spirit of the event.
“We’re an extremely white, male, geeky-dominated group,” said OpenOakland volunteer Adam Stiles. “But the digital divide here is a priority for us. We want to introduce our community to different communities. The location had to be more central than downtown Oakland.”
Tonya Love, an OaklandWiki volunteer, also heads of Digital Divide, a group borne out of OpenOakland that wants to focus on those in the city who don’t have access to computers or Internet service. Though the group is still working through its long-term plan, Love said that her goal is to eventually hold events that are specifically for those in Oakland who are struggling with learning new technologies.
“We don’t have data on how many people in Oakland don’t have access to computers. We need to work on getting that data and working with it,” said Love. “But for people who don’t have computers, but have smart phones, we need to make sure they know how to use what they have. You can still participate in civic processes, you can still get a job, you can still get an education, you can still use social media.”
District 1 city councilmember Dan Kalb, who was one of the first councilmembers to sign the Open Government Pledge, put forth in November by OpenOakland, said he is excited to see open government coming to Oakland with little opposition from city officials. “I’ve seen mostly a sense of pride that Oakland is being identified as one of the leading cities in the country in terms of making things available to the public,” said Kalb. “Things should be accessible by the public in a timely fashion and they should be easy to find. We’re not there yet, but we’re ahead of the curve.”