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Code for Oakland challenges developers to turn public data into an app

on July 23, 2012

A motley crew of 130 software developers, designers, community activists and concerned citizens converged at the Kaiser center on Saturday to compete for their share of more than $5,000 worth of prize money at the second annual Code for Oakland event.  The competition challenges teams to develop a prototype application that uses public data, and gives them only a day to do it.

“We wanted to create a space where people could meet to give them an opportunity to use the [tech] skills they have in a productive way to grow the fabric of Oakland,” said Steve Spiker, who was managing the day’s activities.  Spiker is the director of research and technology at the Urban Strategies Council, a community building support and advocacy organization, and describes himself as a “data junkie, geospatial analyst and a poor man’s coder.”

On Saturday morning, fourteen teams were formed and spent the rest of the day developing prototype applications that utilize public data. All entries had to be ready for a deadline at 4:30 p.m. that afternoon.

Code for Oakland was sponsored by a coalition of organizations including, Code for America, the City of Oakland and many more. The grand prize winning team would receive $1,000 and free technical support for the further development of their prototype from Socrata, a company that develops technologies that allow government organizations to expand the usability of their public data.  The runner-up team would receive $1,000.

According to Spiker, the prize winning teams will receive half of their money up front, and then the other half if they present a further iteration of their work on September 26 to TwoPointOakland, an organization that aims to connect Oakland technology professionals with each other “You need to incentivize people to finish and launch,” said Spiker. “If they don’t finish, then they [just] get something for the [launch of the] idea.”

During the final minutes before the Saturday afternoon deadline, teams were camped out in the hallways of the Kaiser center in close proximity to electrical outlets, hunched over laptops and furiously banging on keyboards while putting the finishing touches on their prototypes.  Spiker walked around shouting that it was time for everyone to report to the auditorium for the presentations.  A few lagged behind, moving slowly, while trying to get a few more precious keystrokes in before revealing the fruit of their labor to the judges and their competitors.

Thirteen teams made it to the finish line for the presentations, which Spiker presided over with an iron fist—or iPad—which he held up from the front row to display each team’s four-minute time limit for speaking about their applications.

The presented prototypes showcased a mix of innovations that would bring public data to life in a way that would be not only useful, but fun.  An idea dubbed “Edible Fruit” sported a beautiful graphical interface with a map pinpointing the location of fruit trees that can be harvested by the public.  An idea called “Pimp My Bus Stop” offered citizens a chance to report problems with their local bus stop, like shattered glass, broken benches or even wayward critters, with a simple text from their cell phone. Due to budget cuts, AC Transit may not be able to monitor the condition of all the bus stops, said one of the developers during the presentation, but this application would give citizens the ability to close the communication and informational gap between them and public transit providers.

The presentation for an app called “Top Cop” took on a very touchy issue in Oakland, the low quality of interactions between police and residents.  Using the app, citizens could text Top Cop to rate the interaction they had with a police officer, and that rating would be made available on a public database.  Users would be encouraged to rate polite and helpful interactions as well, with the intention that the top 5 police officers with positive marks will receive some kind of reward.

The competition was fierce, and the judges took much longer than their allotted 15 minutes to decide which teams would receive prizes.  During the extra lag time, Spiker took the opportunity to engage the audience and speak about the greater good that Code for Oakland hopes to accomplish.

“We’ve started working with the city and showing them examples of how data in the hands of the public can be a hugely creative and innovative thing and the city is actually listening,” said Spiker.  “It’s exciting from my perspective to see change inside of government where people realize what can be done with data, and that data isn’t a liability or a risk.”

When the judges had made their decision, an app called “Hack the Budget” came out on top as the grand prize winner.  This application transforms the Oakland city budget from an eye-glazing sleep-inducing PDF full of statistics into colorful data visualizations that helps show citizens how the money is used.

Team member Shawn McDougal, a UC Berkeley Ph.D student in mathematics who lives in Oakland, explained the reasoning behind Hack the Budget during their presentation: “The problem we’re dealing with is the lack of public awareness about the budget that leads to disengagement.  People don’t know where their public resources go.  They don’t know how their tax dollars get spent.  They don’t know how their city runs.  They disengage.”

The runner up team was, which created data visualizations based on restaurant health inspection data. was a project already in progress that was presented to Code for Oaklanders as an idea to expand upon by Tobin Broadhurst, the deputy director of the information technology department at Alameda County. This sparked team member Aditi Rao’s interest, because Broadhurst wanted to develop it further so he could take it back to his co-workers to show them why making data more open is so important and useful.

When the team’s win was announced,  Rao seemed startled with joy. “That part really interested me because of my experience working as an urban designer working with city governments and big bureaucracies,” said Rao.  “I just knew one of the biggest pieces of this kind of stuff is getting people in government on board, getting people in bureaucracies on board. Sometimes you need to show them something tangible for them to really understand what the benefits might be.”

The hackathon unofficially ended at the watering hole the Layover, giving the developers a chance to blow off steam and take a break before putting their noses back on the grindstone to continue the development of the 2.0 version of their applications.

1 Comment

  1. Howard on July 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    It was a cool event.

    I posted about great 40 images from the community hackathon here:

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