Jun 042013

This past weekend (June 1 and 2, 2013) was the Hack for MN hackathon.  This hackathon was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking White House initiative. This particular event was hosted at DevJam in south Minneapolis.  The idea behind this hackathon was to develop software over two days to solve community problems.

I had a lot of fun at the hackathon.  If these events continue, I will definitely take part again. The people running the event were very organized and exceptionally nice.  The DevJam location was amazing.  And they got more than enough food for everyone throughout the weekend.  It was very, very enjoyable.

I had never done a hackathon before and was not too sure what to expect.  Before the event started, about 20 ideas had been submitted and posted on the event website.  After some opening remarks, everyone there spit off to form groups around one of those ideas.  The initial groups did not necessarily stick together, and I eventually ended up on a project we called DataPark.  The purpose of DataPark was to build a tool that could be used by neighbors and city planners to analyze the effect of road redesigns, new construction, or other development on parking within neighborhoods--a major source of contention in many city planning meetings!  We certainly didn't end up with a finished project by the end, but I got to work with some great guys and some decent progress was made.

There was clearly a lot of government and non-profit interest in this event.  Representatives from the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and state IT groups were there, as well as various other people who worked with local data.  At a couple points during the day, official-type people would give short talks about the data their group is making available.  It is pretty cool that there is government interest and support for sharing data that can be used for non-official software projects.

At the end of the work day Sunday, every group gave a presentation about their project and the progress they have made.  A lot of projects really did not get far out of planning stages, but there were some interesting projects in the mix.  The most impressive one (to me) was MSP Bus, which took the GPS data supplied by Metro Transit to build a working, fully functional web app that told you how far away each bus is from your nearest bus stops.  It actually works and it is awesome!  Check it out.

Overall, I think the Hack for MN hackathon was quite a success.  They laid the groundwork for community involvement and productive dialog between the developer community and government.  Some actual work got done.  But most important, and revealing to me, it demonstrated that there are ways that software can be used to help improve city life.

EDIT 6/8:  Mike Altmann, one of the guys I worked with on DataPark put together a great writeup of the DataPark project.

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