Montgomery County holds first Hackathon!

In today’s world there exists as much as a thousand zettabytes of data. How can we make sense of this data and put it in a useful form? Can any of it be classified as information? Information by definition is data that has been processed. And information, in turn, results in intelligence. This is exactly what more than 11,000 people successfully did on the first weekend in June, 2013 on The National Day of Civic Hacking. These people engaged themselves in finding ways to put these enormous amounts of data to some constructive use. The event was organized at more than 90 different venues all over the United States from June 1-2, 2013. Montgomery County participated in this massive civic engagement effort by holding our first Hackathon.

NDoCH T-ShirtsThe event, #Hack4MoCo, was held at the Universities at Shady Grove on June 1, 2013. The event was organized by the Innovation Program and the County Department of Technology Services. The main idea behind the entire process was to bring together local civic hackers, coders, residents, and entrepreneurs to solve some of the problems that are faced by County government. The data is or could be published on the dataMontgomery site which is the repository for County data about subjects ranging from the operating budget, employee salaries, and electrical permits to service requests from residents. The meeting started with the registration process and snacks followed by an introduction of the Open Montgomery Portal by Mr. Sonny Segal, the County’s Chief Information Officer. Mr. Segal introduced openMontgomery to the attendees and made them aware of the kind of potential it had for being beneficial to the community. After Mr. Segal’s address, Montgomery County’s Chief Innovation Officer, Mr. Dan Hoffman, laid out the rules and flow of the event.

How It Worked

We employed the reverse pitch approach, wherein every representative group had 3-5 minutes to describe their challenge to the attendees. Instead of providing the participants with a ready solution, our aim was to give them a chance to come up with the creative solutions that they thought were best suited. A total of five ideas were put in front of the attendees. These ideas were presented by officials from respective departments. Attendees were given time to question the presenters. The developers, hackers, and department representatives were then divided into different groups in order to discuss the possible solutions. Three groups presented their solutions in the end. The groups had fruitful meetings and were able to approach the problem from both the developer’s point of view as well as the county residents’. Each group was given two hours before dinner to frame the solutions which were then discussed over dinner.

The results:

A)    Food Recovery Application – Presented by Linda McMillan of the Food Recovery Working Group

Tons of food is wasted in different grocery shops, kitchens of schools, and restaurants. Food which is fit for consumption and can help feed those in need. There is no adept system available for the food donors and/or the demand centers like shelters and food pantries. The County Food Recovery group wants to devise a method so that this food can be quickly made available to the people who need it.

Solution Presented:  The conceptual solution was to develop a web platform which would connect the participants. When any donor posts about the availability of food, the potential consumers in the vicinity will be notified by an SMS. The concerned consumer can acknowledge the receipt of such a message by responding to it and mentioning the food items they will be able to pick up in a given time frame. In case of no reply, another SMS will be sent out. This time the radius of the recipients notified will be expanded. The same acknowledgement method will be used again. The process will be repeated until all the excess food is donated or goes bad.

B)     Transit Data Visualization – Presented by Kurt Raschke, resident expert and blogger

There is a lot of logged data available about the transit system in the County but it does not help the county residents. It does not enable them to know about the delays and changes in the routes. The transit data can be used to help the commuters know these things in real time so that they can plan their travel accordingly.

Solution Presented: The group suggested using Twitter to provide real time updates regarding any delay and the status of the transit routes. Different hash tags can be used for different routes and the commuters can follow tweets that have the hash tags pertaining to their routes. The team suggested using optimization research techniques employing the data that is previously available so that the routes can be effectively updated.

C)     MC311 Service Requests and Twitter – Presented by Leslie Hamm, MC311

Montgomery County’s 311 service request department has posted data about previous service requests. The data posted on the Open Montgomery website would help us identify the problematic areas specific to various regions of the county. While the department officials came up with the idea of using twitter to submit requests, the developers took advantage of the reverse pitch flow and suggested a much better solution to the problem.

Solution Presented: The developers thought of developing a native mobile app which enables the user to perform four different tasks. The first task will be to submit a new request. The developers suggested making the GUI intuitive so that the residents can easily submit requests. Secondly, the app would enable residents to check the status of their current request. The third option will let the user know the history of their requests. The fourth option – the main feature of the app – would show on a map the types of requests that have been previously made in the user’s region of the county. This would make it easier to determine whether there is a pattern to certain requests in any particular region.

Two other reverse pitches were made to the attendees. One was on the topic of My Green Montgomery. Thank you to Jessica Jones and Scott Faunce from Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection for presenting on this topic. The federal Environmental Protection Agency also presented on the clean drinking water data they publish. No reports were generated on those topics but we’re planning a follow-up event to specifically explore environmental topics.

Montgomery County’s Hackathon saw some of the best minds come together to brainstorm on the uses of the data that can be obtained from the dataMontgomery site. The event concluded with presentations over dinner and a good amount of networking and connecting. The primary desired outcome of any hackathon is the community building and connecting that occurs when developers and anyone with technical skills volunteer their time and talent for civic improvement. For this reason, hackathons are not standalone events, but part of a dialogue between the County, residents, and the tech community. In the case of Montgomery County this was the first step in starting that dialog. For photos from the event click here.

Innovation Fellow Atirek Gupta contributed to this article.