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Sacramento’s first civic hackathon kicks off Code for Sacramento



Programers, database gurus, designers and local web professionals of all types participated in Sacramento’s first civic hackathon Saturday at the HackerLab. With burritos in abundant supply and chill techno soundtrack playing the background, teams developed ideas for web tools meant to tackle problems like global warming awareness, judicial bias and campaign finance.

The event was the debut of Code for Sacramento, a local branch of Code for America, a national nonprofit that brings programmers and web professionals to work with city governments to help solve civic issues.

Ash Roughani is one of the "co-captains" of Code for Sacramento (along with Gina Lujan and Eric Ullrich of Hackerlab). We caught up with him via email Sunday night to get his take on the significance of the event.

Sac Press: What do you think was accomplished?

Ash Roughani: This wasn’t just Sacramento’s first civic hackathon, but Code for Sacramento’s first event. Period. So we had no idea what to expect in terms of interest in civic hacking among residents. Turnout, by far, exceeded all of our expectations and it was clear that participants found value in the projects they pursued.

SP: What were the takeways? Any memorable moments?

Roughani: There was definitely some worry when we realized that Sacramento doesn’t have a centralized open data portal. I sort of expected that coders would come in with ideas and we could then find the necessary data to make those projects reality. That’s me coming from the policy world I used to work in, so I totally underestimated the need for a centralized data repository. It turns out that programmers don’t think like policy wonks, so we all had this "uh, oh" moment when we realized that all the programmers needed to see what data was available before they could come up with some useful applications to build with the data.

SP: How do you see the open data movement evolving in Sacramento?

Roughani: We definitely need to prioritize getting an open data portal off the ground. It’s going to take the cooperation of the six counties and 22 cities in our region. In fact, the regional approach to governance that’s being led by organizations like SACOG and Valley Vision is what really sets us apart from the big urban cities where decision-making is consolidated – making it much easier for them to deploy open data platforms. But we have a major opportunity to put Sacramento at the forefront of public sector innovation by institutionalizing collaboration across different governmental jurisdictions through the use of a regional open data portal that is connected to application programming interfaces (APIs) at every public agency. Whether or not the political will exists to push that forward remains to be seen, but this fundamentally is the future of governance in the 21st Century. So we can choose to lead that transformation or settle for mediocrity and catch up with everyone else ten years from now.

SP: What does Code for America do in Sacramento exactly and where is that headed?

Roughani:  Code for Sacramento is a joint venture between Public Innovation and Hacker Lab. Now that we know there’s interest in civic hacking here, we want to start a series of monthly meetups which will allow us to grow the community and work on small projects between hackathons.

SP: When is the next civic hackathon? How can people get involved?

Roughani: June 1-2, 2013 is the National Day of Civic Hacking. We jumped on this really early, so we were actually mentioned in a White House blog post last month. It’s going to be a huge event for us and we want to start lining up sponsorships, as well as aggregating datasets for participants to use. Anyone who’s interested can go to codeforsacramento.org and find links to our Meetup group and discussion forum. We’re aiming to do around four civic hackathons per year and continue growing the community through monthly meetups.

Below are a few highlights of the teams that particpated and their projects:

Stephane Come (left) and Ben Smith (right) worked on what they call the "Global warming clock." It would be a smartphone app that would show how temperatures have changed overtime in a given location.

"The idea of the clock is to make a way that a normal person can interact with climate change, with climate data," Smith said. "We’re not necessarily interested in saying if it’s true, saying if it’s false. We just want to make it easy for your average layman to access the data, to make their own conclusions.  

A shot of part of the program behind the global warming clock.

Hailey Pate (left) and Jeannette Vollmer (right) worked together to develop a way to use data and statistics to identity biases and trends in the decisions of judges. The program would be able to use court data and show how a given judge has ruled in certain kinds of cases with specific type of defendant, like DUIs involving women defendants or what have you. The tendencies of individual judges could be compared with national averages or means to identity statical deviations and potential biases.

Hailey Pate (left) and Jeannette Vollmer (right)

 Phoebe Ayer spent the afternoon working on updating SacWiki, which is much like a local version of Wikipedia. Here she talks about the site and her favorite entries.

Finally, he’s a video with snippets of the event produced by Code for Sacramento:

Code for Sacramento :: Code Across America 2013 Hackathon from Public Innovation on Vimeo.

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