'Civic hackers' reshape data to address local problems

The City of Austin partners with tech-savvy citizens and volunteers to make its public data more accessible.

On May 23, the city hosted a meeting of computer coders and software developers to showcase projects and promote the upcoming ATX Hackathon for Change on June 1–2 at St. Edward's University.

Volunteers with Open Austin, a group "promoting open government, open data and civic application development in Austin," are well aware of hacking's negative connotation.

"If you think about what nefarious hackers do, it's really trying to find a way to make a system do something it's not supposed to do," volunteer Herb Watkins said. "What we're trying to do is to quickly do things that make a lot of sense to do that an organization, perhaps because of history, prevents people from doing. We're trying to shortcut things."

During a hackathon, interested residents will form teams, discuss and identify community programs and design and develop software applications intended to address those challenges, said David Waldron, St. Edward's University vice president for information technology.

There are a few possible end results of the coders' work, Watkins said. Hackathons rarely produce completed, ready-to-use applications; they often lay the groundwork for later development.

These first steps may be picked up by city staff, volunteers or nonprofits, Watkins said. Unrelated project ideas can also come out of such sessions.

During the May 23 hackathon, volunteers worked on creating a streamlined method of viewing restaurant inspection data. Watkins said the goal was to create an application where a user could look at his or her mobile phone, locate nearby restaurants on a map and view the most recent inspection information.

The volunteers used information from the city's Data Portal and open source software from Socrata Inc.

Council members Chris Riley and Laura Morrison praised the volunteers' efforts and highlighted recent projects: ATX Floods, Bike Buddy and an open source platform for searching candidate campaign finance records.

ATX Floods provides current flood information and emergency road closures in Austin and Travis County.

Bike Buddy connects experienced bike commuters with those that are new to biking to work. Riley said that it had connected 114 riders to date, including 33 new riders.

"While serving on our council Emerging Technology and Telecommunication Committee, I've had an opportunity to work with [Open Austin] and others who have been involved in hacking and see what kinds of fruits it can bear for the Austin community," he said.

Morrison said that these and similar efforts were about leveraging technology to increase engagement and improve public service and transparency.

For more information, visit www.open-austin.org or https://hackforchange.org/atx-hackathon-change-2013.


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