Civic leaders, technologists set to convene for 2013 Code for America Summit

Registration is still open for the 2013 Code for America Summit set for October 15 to 17 in San Francisco.

Featured speakers include Kansas City (Mo.) Mayor Sly James, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak, Raleigh Chief Information Officer Gail Roper, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rep. Darrell Issa, UK Digital Director Mike Bracken (my personal favorite) and a ton of other great people.

Civic accelerator Tumml to host ‘Urban Innovation and the Role of Government’ talk

Urban ventures accelerator Tumml will host a panel discussion, Uncharted Territory: Urban Innovation and the Role of Government, on January 28 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at the Hatchery in San Francisco (Register here).

The event will focus on the rise of urban innovators and how entrepreneurs and government can collaborate to further innovation and improve cities.


  • David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
  • Logan Green, Co-Founder and CEO of Zimride/ Lyft
  • Molly Turner, Director of Public Policy at Airbnb
  • Moderated by Peter Hirshberg, Board Chairman of the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts

See a related post on the subject from Tumml co-founders Clara Brenner and Julie Lein here.

New monthly civic innovators meetup launches in San Francisco

CivicMeetCivicMeet is a new monthly meetup that helps connect public and private sector innovators working to create a more open, engaged civil society.

The first CivicMeet SF will be held in San Francisco on November 15, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Thirsty Bear.

Space is limited so register now.

Big shout to fellow organizers and Bay Area civic rock stars Alissa Black, Sarah Granger, Marci Harris, Hillary Hartley, Tina Lee and Shannon Spanhake on making this happen.

Be sure to connect with CivicMeet (or start one where you live) on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

If you’d like to help coordinate or host an event, feel free to contact us here.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Wrapping up Code for Oakland 2012

Today, I had the opportunity to attend Code for Oakland 2012 and, as always with events like this, walked away inspired by the work of good friends and the enthusiasm of citizens and public servants wanting to do more for their communities. Big kudos to all involved engaging, organizing and sponsoring a great event in a great city.

Check out Kwan Booth’s great Storify wrap-up of the event here:

Oakland gets its code on

Code for OaklandCode for Oakland will be held July 21 at the Kaiser Center in Oakland, Ca.

Steve Spiker, OpenOakland Brigade Captain and Director of Research & Technology for Urban Strategies Council, discusses Oakland’s open data progress and what attendees can expect from the event.

What’s the state of open data in Oakland?

We’ve done a lot of education with city staff and council members on the need and benefit for open data, and just this week a committee approved a staff report to go to council with two viable options for building an open data platform for Oakland – an internally developed system or an external solution, something like Socrata or Junar. We’re hoping this moves forward smoothly, and we see a new system live before the end of the year – a first for an East Bay city!

In the past the only open data content was provided on our platform at as part of our efforts to democratize data and also provide a system for planners and nonprofits and policymakers to access good public data for decision making and analysis. We’ve made all our data simply downloadable from within the mapping tool.

See also my recent post about this here.

We are also working with Alameda County to plan for and launch their new open data platform also.

How did the idea for Code for Oakland come about? Who’s behind it, and what can attendees expect?

Oakland is a city with all the components to make it an incredibly prominent, productive technology mecca, except for formal city support of this work. A group of local media folks, local technologists, tech/data loving nonprofits and interested city staff got together to provide an event each year where civically engaged residents, developers, media and curious city staff can get together and build or work towards solutions to local issues faced by our community and our city. As with last year we will have a hackathon for the folks who want to create new tools with $5,000 in prizes and some great support packages to help the winners bring their apps to market.

The main organizations supporting this are Urban Strategies Council, Oakland Local, Code for America, the City of Oakland and TechLiminal.

What makes Code For Oakland somewhat unique is the non-hack events. This year we will have sessions for information activism, learning about open data, a chance to build out a permanent record of our great city on a LocalWiki site and a great urban exploration event using ForageCity (an app built by a local gem Youth Radio) where people can use technology, maps to find surplus food in their community.

What long-term plans do you have for Code for Oakland, growing the Oakland open data movement and leveraging this to help the city?

The Code for Oakland organizing committee is eager to move beyond a single event per year, and we hope to build the team’s capacity and the city’s support to allow more frequent events in Oakland.

During the event we will be highlighting work from last year’s event with a discussion on the ways we can support and sustain efforts like this where an app has perhaps little commercial value but a potentially huge community value.

As with most U.S. cities there are dozens of ways that smart technologists and engineers can make a huge impact on how well our cities function, we think this is a worthy challenge and needs our support long term. This was part of the reason we created OpenOakland – a Code for America Brigade focused on supporting local hackers to connect with civic issues and city staff to work together to build tools that transform our city.

There’s also a post on the start of OpenOakland with more info, and to get involved join us here.

Motivating developers to attend and make meaningful contributions at civic hackathons

Open government hackathons matter

Mark Headd has some interesting thoughts on encouraging better participation at civic hackathons, suggesting perhaps a registration fee would drive more reliable participation. For those who will be at SXSW this year, he’s also giving a talk on lessons learned in organizing events such as these.

While you can typically expect up to a fifty percent drop-off rate for any free event that doesn’t require specific attendee contributions, Mark may be onto something.

However, there’s something more happening here, and it’s related to motivation.

It doesn’t matter whether you have 1,000 or 10 people at an event. What matters is having the right people for the right task with a sustainable deliverable that also fosters volunteerism and sense of community. The hackathon itself shouldn’t be where all the work, from scratch to finish, is done. It should be the foundation for bringing what’s happening online, building community through code and celebrating the final product(s).

Areas hackathon organizers must address when considering attendance and meaningful outcomes:

  • Don’t mistake quantity for quality. I’ll take five solid designers/developers/writers to build a website or application over 100 with little focus and not taking their civic duty serious.
  • Plan ahead, outline objectives, have focus, give ownership, achieve a goal. The hackathon shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all for what happens. If someone has a specific task and sense that their work is going to have sustainable value to the community, they’re more likely to show up.
  • Get government involved. Hackathon organizers need to work with government (and vice versa) to understand its needs and how they can support it. Fundamentally, civic activists want to see some sort of appreciation or sense their voice (in this case, their code) is being heard. Government involvement is critical.

If you accomplish the above, you’ll get serious developers taking a brief step away from their startup venture or overwhelming demand for paid work, where they know they can be creative building work that’s meaningful and lasts beyond the lifespan of the weekend. Otherwise, you’re going to get light attendance with outcomes that produce vanity projects with little value celebrated by a core few.

For those interested motivating and incentivizing people beyond manual, rote tasks, Dan Pink’s RSAnimate talk and 2009 TED talk are a must watch, because they applies to civic hackathons, contests and challenges.

Pink’s RSA talk:

Pink’s 2009 TED Talk:

Reno readies for world’s biggest little hackathon


The world’s biggest little city is about to get its code on.

Set for October 15-16 at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in Reno, Nev., Hack4Reno is a 24-hour civic hackathon organized by the Reno Collective and the City of Reno.

We asked organizers from the Reno Collective, Colin Loretz, Don Morrison and Chris Yoder, and City of Reno Web Manager Kristy Fifelski to share why they’re doing Hack4Reno and what’s in store before, during and after the event.

Who’s behind Hack4Reno and who’s it for?

Hack4Reno is a partnership with Reno Collective and the City of Reno to inspire developers, designers and entrepreneurs to build apps, websites or services that help the Reno community grow into a smarter, more engaged city. If you’ve ever wanted to build an app or a website, this is the perfect opportunity to do so while getting a lot of exposure and even win prizes!

What do you want to accomplish short- and long-term with Hack4Reno?

In the short-term, Hack4Reno will help local developers, designers and entrepreneurs to meet one another, learn about what other talent exists in the area and showcase the local talent. We have a wealth of resources in Reno and places like Tahoe, Sparks and Truckee all within 30 minutes but not everyone knows what resources exist or how to access them. The apps that get built at Hack4Reno will help make Reno a more connected place.

Long term, Hack4Reno is about education. We want people to understand what is happening around them in their community and we want them to see what kind of talent exists here. In doing so, we hope to retain and even attract new talent to the area through the creation of new businesses and opportunities around web technology, open government and entrepreneurship.

What are the the pre-hackathon events and why are they important?

We are hosting various Hack4Reno meetups and workshops leading up to the event so that we can prepare everyone for the 24 hour hackathon. This includes classes on various services and open source technologies that can cut the time and cost of development significantly. We see them as a kind of training regime, similar to how you’d train for a marathon. You can’t just show up to a marathon without any training and expect to run all 26.2 miles. These meetups also allow the participants to meet one another, form teams and learn more about open government, open data and learn more about why Hack4Reno is happening and why it is happening specifically in Reno.

How can people connect with Hack4Reno and get involved?

Everything can be found online at or you can follow updates on Twitter at @hack4reno. Thanks to our wonderful sponsors, we have made the event completely free for participants and we want to encourage developers and designers, even if they are from another city, to come out and build something with us!

Watch this video from the organizers:

Photo: CityofReno

Second Summer of Smart hackathon tackles buildings, transportation and sustainability

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces

Building data. It’s a small thing, but what if the buildings where we live, work and play were able to show us how they work? How much energy they use, what their carbon footprint is, how they compare to the building next door? Building data. It’s also a huge thing, a salvo in the data revolution that rages across the U.S. and brings the hope of transparent, agile and accountable government.

San Francisco has always been a proving ground for small ideas that blow up to impact the American landscape in ways no one could have predicted, from the hippies in the 1960s to the tech boom that is still ongoing. The current movement is challenging coders, data artists, designers and makers to find, create and illuminate available data to build apps, widgets and games to make the city better — to use civic hackathons to create experiments that have the potential to change the face of city government.

This puzzle is the basis of the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts (GAFFTA)’s Summer of Smart program, a three-month experiment in urban innovation that is bringing together developers, designers, city officials, urbanists, journalists, community members, and more to see what happens when you give ordinary citizens the tools to create change. GAFFTA, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that funds and creates experiments that build social consciousness through digital culture, along with the San Francisco Department of Technology, has created a living laboratory for a new model for how citizens and government can work directly together to address urban issues. It’s called Democracy 3.0, and it’s not limited to the West Coast anymore.

GAFFTA’s second urban hackathon was held over the weekend of July 22 to 24, and focused on sustainability, transportation, and energy.

One eye-opener for the 100 passionate citizen who showed up on Friday night was that the transportation sector is awash in data, (though it’s often not being used correctly or at all by the actual transportation agencies) while building data is such a morass of different formats and metrics that it’s impossible to work with.

“The reason we are talking about transportation and buildings is that the two of them account for a huge percentage of our country’s energy bill,” said Peter Hirshberg, chairman of GAFFTA. “In a city, buildings consume 40 percent of our energy bill, and about 30 percent of that could be saved if we knew what was going on. The problem is that we’re a little bit data blind. There’s just not that much information about buildings.”

In order to focus energy and attention on that problem, GAFFTA brought in experts to talk to the hackers about transportation, energy efficiency and city government.

Di-Ann Eisnor, a GAFFTA board member and executive at WAZE told the group about the how crowd-sourced traffic data is providing far more real time information about what’s happening on our roads than was ever available from government, sensors, or helicopter traffic services. “When you turn gathering traffic data into a game, and thousands of smart phone users play along, you are able to see what’s going on and manage traffic as never before,” Eisnor said. In keeping with the art spirit of things, she showed GAFFTA created visualizations of LA traffic data from the recent Carmageddon weekend.

Brandon Tinianov, CTO of Serious Energy spoke of buildings as machines full of data and manageable, but too often lacking the software layer and systems to allow building managers to do anything about it. His firm is a leader in providing industrial solutions to the problems, but he too called for a building data movement — to create awareness, open up more data, and to help cities understand how much better and more efficient buildings could be when attention was focused on working with the right data. “We can map bikes, trash, cars, but we can’t map buildings,” he said. “No one in this room knows what this building consumes or if it’s efficient.”

By Sunday evening, the seven teams had created projects that, in some ways, used available data to highlight what was missing. One team used available data to create a widget that will allow tenants of commercial buildings to compare sustainability factors such as energy use, waste generated and water consumed. Another group used data supplied by Muni to build an app that would allow line supervisors to use the same information that riders have to make on-the-fly decisions about trains and buses. Another takes information from building permits available on to create a picture of green building retrofit history in San Francisco. All in all, the teams were about evenly split between transportation and buildings, somewhat surprising given the difference in the amount of data that was out there between the two.

“This weekend was particularly interesting, because after searching for data, it became very clear that the transportation sector is way ahead of the energy sector, and part of this is demonstrating useful applications for the energy data: something I believe the weekend achieved,” said Christine Outram, research associate at the MIT SENSEable City lab. Outram and her team created, a site that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces. “The story of data needs to be told, because data provides value and insight. We have seen this happen in the transportation sector, where mobile applications and data analysis have resulted in a more convenient, efficient, and flexible transit system that doesn’t require the roll-out of additional infrastructure or vehicles. This is not enough though, we must continue to tell the story of data so that other sectors begin to understand the value proposition.”

Building data, on the other hand, is a confusing mess of formats, standards and metrics. In February, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee signed the Existing Commercial Building Energy Performance Ordinance, which requires owners of commercial buildings to determine how much energy a building uses and make that data available, but it doesn’t apply universally until 2013. Even the data that is currently available isn’t always in the same formats, a problem tackled by the North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in their PAP10 project to create a data standard for energy usage.

“Government data is critical for the public in terms of transparency and accountability,” said Jay Nath, director of innovation at the San Francisco department of technology. While the projects that came from the weekend were all very good, Nath thinks they could have been even better if the data was there. “Data is the raw material for much of the work that happens at hackathons. Our goal as government is to increase access to data that is consistent with our privacy and security policies. Events like this can spur demand for data that can raise awareness within government.”

The other focus of the weekend, transportation, had almost the complete opposite problem: the groups were swimming in data, but the public transit agencies in the city don’t have access to it, or don’t actually use it. Emily Drennen, a current intern with Muni, decided to use the weekend to fix Muni: “You know, a small, manageable project.” Her idea was originally to find a way to allow train operators and line supervisors to access the same information that riders have, on, and use that data to make on-the-fly decisions to solve bunched up buses or clogged muni trains. But when they went down and actually talked to some of the Muni employees, it turned out that supervisors often didn’t even know when there was a problem, much less have the ability to solve it on the fly. “The people who are in charge are basically on their radios going ‘Roger roger’ and trying to get the information across,” said Matt Kroneberger, a Berkeley graduate student.

The Summer of Smart hackathons have drawn the attention of people across the city, from mayoral candidates to tech superstars and San Francisco-based corporations. Candidates Phil Ting, Joanna Rees and David Chiu stopped by the GAFFTA headquarters and all said that they want the innovative spirit of the hackathons to live on in their administrations, which is exactly what Hirshberg hoped would happen when he came up with the idea.

“The insight for summer of smart, for me, began when GAFFTA Executive Director Josette Melchor and I were talking to supervisors and mayoral candidates about open data and visualization and they looked at us and said, ‘well we’ve heard about that, but how does gov 2.0 help make a better city, make people be more healthy, solve social problems or make the trains run on time? What does it do for our voters?’,” Hirshberg said. “I realized that it was a classic case of us geeks being excited about something and the business users not having any idea what we’re talking about. This is a classic problem in technology marketing So I was really interested in making the people who are running for office clients for real live projects. If they said ‘these are the priorities,’ that would turn the geeks into people who actually understood what the real business use was. By making it a part of the campaign process, we’d create a lot of awareness. We’d be a laboratory for ideas that candidates might want to adopt – ideas worth stealing.” Candidate Phil Ting echoed this when he said, “When you are in a campaign, you are constantly looking to push the envelope and challenge yourself as well as the city and you’re looking for innovative ideas. In a campaign, it’s like policy entrepreneurship. Candidates, especially those of us who are running for offices we haven’t held, we’re looking to identify issues that we can champion and that we can work on and I think that’s happening a lot in this campaign.”

While that sounds idyllic, you might be forgiven if your experiences with city government have made you a bit cynical. However, in this case it’s actually working. Remember that Muni app, created in a weekend by seven regular citizens? On Sunday evening, the groups presented their apps to an audience including Melanie Nutter, Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment. When the conversation turned to the potential to offend a city IT staffer, Hirshberg turned to Nutter and asked, “You work for the city, are we in trouble yet?” Nutter’s response? “I’m part of the [Muni] strategic planning team and I think this is a great thing.”

SF developers, journalists, civic activists kick off second Summer of Smart hackathon

Summer of Smart

It’s 9:15 on Friday night, and there are about 100 people milling around the GAAFTA headquarters. Wandering around, you hear one group talking about using current and historical MUNI data to, in the words of GAFFTA’s co-founder and Chairman Peter Hirshberg, “make the bus chase you, rather than you chase the bus.”

Another group is creating an app that works with the Mayor’s office of Housing and Redevelopment to show available apartments and co-working spaces in realtime. A third group wants to crowdsource available sustainability data to compare buildings in the city.

GAFFTA’s second Summer of Smart hackathon is off and running, and it’s bringing together architects, building engineers, journalists, Android developers – pretty much anyone you can imagine who might be interested in making their city a better, more responsive and more innovative place to live.

The first SoS, held the weekend of June 24th, focused on community development and public art. Of the seven projects that hackers put together over the roughly 24-hour hackathon, about half are still being worked on a month later, a much higher percentage than most hackathons have, says GAFFTA research director Jake Levitas.

What makes SoS different? It’s by design, says Hirshberg. “We picked areas that matter to the city,” he said, “Where you would naturally get geeks and activists who cared so they would stick around and become part of the dialogue. Some hackathons are more commercial, sometimes you’ll have one that’s around social media data and everyone shows up to show off the API from their startup. But this one is pulling people from the community, and so you get this really interesting group of people who really care about this type of data who have more of a diverse background, and are interested in producing results at urban scale.”

The final SoS hackathon, focusing on public health, food and nutrition, will be held the weekend of August 19th. The best projects from the three weekends will be presented to city officials and mayoral candidates at the Commonwealth Club on October 6th.