PDF: Applied: New Ideas and New Relationships
Personal Democracy Media held its first civic hackathon on the week-end prior to our annual conference, and its organizers, Andrew Rasiej (my employer), Andrew Hoppin, and Richard Robbins assembled an all-star group of people to meet and come up with creative ideas in the civic hacking space.
As Andrew previously stated when we announced the event, one of the hackathon’s prime goals was to build relationships. And that certainly seemed to happen: I overheard several NGO participants commenting over the course of the week-end that it was mind-opening to collaborate with developers who approach problems from a very different angle than the colleagues with whom they usually work.
“We were trying to bridge the worlds of practitioners with developers to come up with applications with real world value and serve the goals of civic engagement, election participation and advocacy,” said Robbins, who is a partner at Hotspot Digital and former director of social innovation at AT&T. “I think government is used to having structures in place that prevent them from being able to do something like this, where within 24 hours you’re developing a new application to serve citizens, and programmers don’t always have access to government and non-profit leaders to really have a sense of what the challenge is that needs to be solved.”
What was really striking was many of the participants’ enthusiasm, some of whom had never attended a hackathon.
This blog is reprinted from http://www.techpresident.com
“This to me was a dream come true,” said Common Cause New York‘s Executive Director Susan Lerner, who headed up a team that came up with the first-prize-winning application Poll Watch USA, a smartphone solution with the goal of enabling voters to report in real-time problems at the polls. “I’ve had other ideas for software, and I’ve looked for consultants, but often you feel like you’re in a hopeless morass. Here it was completely the opposite—the team evolved, interacted and our ideas interlocked really quickly. It was really hands on, and the tangibility of it was so exciting.”
This was Lerner’s first hackathon. Her team included Jeremy Canfield, a service director at the consulting firm Reboot, and a graduate of Code for America, and Web developers John Yung and Volkan Unsal. Unsal has quit his job to focus full time on developing the project.
The group hopes to use polling information being compiled in a standardized format by the National Democratic Institute and the Pew Research Center to create a working version of the application sometime before the election. The group started off thinking about creating the app for New York City. But during the course of the week-end, they discovered the National Democracy Institute and Pew’s polling location information collection project, and they realized that they could create a app that could be used nationally.
“This project was the most meaningful in terms of potential impact combined with the theory of change behind it,” said Mike Mathieu, one of the hackathon’s five judges, and chairman of Front Seat, a civic software company based in Seattle. “I think that the fact that the problem was identified, and the motivation for it came from an advocacy group made it a much more concrete problem to solve.”
Mathieu also thought that the app had the highest probability of making it out into the real world because there’s an existing network of poll monitors and non-profits such as Common Cause who would be eager to use it. And the existence of the national database of polling locations added to its potential to scale up to make it incredibly useful.
“Everyone really felt that reporting on problems at the polls was a really great tool, especially with the upcoming election, and if it could be brought to scale prior to the presidential election it would be a really valuable tool for a lot of people,” said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York, and a press aide for Al Gore’s bungled 2000 bid for the presidency.
SECOND PLACE: The group that won second place created a Freedom of Information portal for New York City called OpenUp NYC. The idea was to create a user-friendly Freedom of Information Law portal that would simplify the process both for citizens and for FOIL officers, at the same time as making them more accountable.
So the team designed an interface that broke the process down into three steps for the requestor. Instead of making them go to every city agency web site, the portal provides the requestor a drop-down menu of the 38 city agencies. If the person doesn’t know where to direct their request, the site would ask them which subject area their request falls into, and then routes it to the appropriate agency for them.
“In a large number of cases, people’s requests will be rejected because they’ve made the request to the wrong agency, they’ve made it in the wrong format, and the request somehow falls through the cracks,” said Jeff S. Merritt, senior advisor to New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who headed up the team.
The goal of the portal is to better guide individuals through the process so that doesn’t happen. Someone with a query about the number of noise complaints received by the city within a certain time period might not know that it’s the Department of Environmental Protection that deals with such complaints, for example.
Merritt pitched the idea to the organizers of PDF: Applied. His team mates included Eddie Tejada, a 2012 Code for America fellow, Dominic Mauro, an open government researcher, Reboot Co-Founder and Principal Panthea Lee
The site would also provide requestors tips on how to submit successful requests, and would log, aggregate and categorize each one so that the public can see at a glance how responsive each agency is. Merritt believes that making this information public would galvanize agencies to respond quickly to the requests.
Merritt is working with Code for America and Reboot to make the project a reality, and they plan to meet with the city agencies’ FOIL officers to help build out the details of the system so that it can be useful to them as well as to the public.
THIRD PLACE: Crowdshift, an app that enables Occupy Wall Street protestors to schedule shifts, and Seetra.in, an app that proposes to let New York City residents see the movement of subway trains in real-time, tied for third place.
Our own Andrew Rasiej came up with the idea of Crowdshift. Inspired by the citizens of Ukraine who used SMS to organize their protests of the outcome of the rigged 2004 presidential election, Rasiej thought that members of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City could benefit from a modern day scheduling system that would enable protestors to sign up for shifts. The idea was to be able to schedule and manage the size of crowds, eliminating the need for people to camp out at Zuccotti Park. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg virtually decimated the movement in New York by ordering the camping protestors out of the park so that it could be cleaned.
“This is a hack against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to crack down on protestors,” Rasiej said when presenting the project to the panel of judges, which included Stan Freck, Microsoft’s director of cloud computing for the public sector in the United States, Mathieu, Shorenstein, ThoughtWorks Chairman Roy Singham, and Princeton Professor of International Affairs Anne-Marie Slaughter.
“The diaspora of conference rooms and all the other meeting places just isn’t working—there’s a sense of magic when people are all in one place,” said Erek Tinker, an activist who’s one of the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, who was on Rasiej’s team. “That’s where this Crowdshift thing comes in.”
Tied with Crowdshift was SeeTra.in, created by New York University Urban Planing student Chris Whong and developers Jeremy Baron, Graham Brooks, Sam Richards. The app, written in HTML 5, used a frozen snapshot of real-time New York City train data to help riders visualize where trains are. The app was a first because it was the first time that the MTA had made such data publicly available. The team said that the project was a little challenging because they were not familiar with the General Transit feed Specification. Nevertheless, they tentatively plan further development in the Fall, with a full system map and possibly text-message or e-mail alerts to tell riders when their train is due to arrive at a station nearest them.
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