This post, by PlaceMatters blogger Jason Lally, is the twelfth in a month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.
We believe in collaborative process for better, enduring outcomes around community decision-making. But the collaborative process is really an overlay on any decision-making approach that needs many interested parties to negotiate and design a solution. One type of collaborative process that has come out of the programming and software development world is the hackathon.
Think of a dance marathon, but instead of being on your feet for 48 hours, you are furiously programming and designing with a team over a similar period. And instead of raising money for a cause, you’re donating time and code to a needy nonprofit, civic group or public agency. Hackathons have also been used as testing grounds for great ideas, with investors looking for strong teams and offering capital or other rewards to help build viable businesses as featured in a recent Wired article by Steven Leckart. Even if not the explicit goal of a hackathon, new businesses can emerge from these events just from the concentrated creative power gathered in a single room.
Hackathons have become very popular among civic-minded folks in areas like transportation, government transparency and clean energy. In the world of planning related data, transportation has probably gotten the most love. OpenPlans has really helped build a movement around opening up transportation data to build really cool apps like OpenTripPlanner and MTA BusTime (based on the open source project One Bus Away from the Puget Sound region). And Google gave open transportation apps a great big push when they released the General Transit Feed Specification (a standard format for publishing transit information in a way that computers can read and understand).
Hackathons form one piece of a larger network of activities and people that support civic hacking. Behind each hackathon are a bevy of organizations and people cheering on and supporting the effort. They host GitHub repositories, provide space, host data catalogs, volunteer time, manage listservs, build partnerships, and so on. The ecosystem of data, tools, people and organizations provide the necessary input into really successful hackathon events. It turns out that, in the end, these events are just one visible piece of the civic hacking culture. What happens before and after is just as, if not more, important to sustaining apps and solutions to really complex problems.
It was out of this realization that the PlaceMatters Decision Lab was born about 2 years ago. Nothing really changed here at PlaceMatters except adding a level of intention and strategy behind the work we were already doing. Now, we are working on some specific projects for this year that are very exciting. One of these projects is a hackathon around the livability principles outlined by HUD, EPA, and DOT as part of the sustainable communities initiative, which follows on the first of these done in DC in January.
The event will be in Denver and use local, open and available data to address issues of sustainability for organizations, agencies and individuals. For example, what if you were shopping for a house in the Denver metro region and could pull up data on Zillow about your potential transportation costs in addition to your housing costs? Or what if you could know and understand your neighborhood’s transportation cost burden and use that to find, fund and advocate for alternatives? Those may not be the apps that get built, but hopefully you get the gist.
The role of PlaceMatters before, during and after the hackathon will be to sustain and build the energy locally and push apps out into other cities with similar challenges. We are looking for partners both in Denver and across the country. We want to empower people with data and information that helps move communities to better outcomes for future generations. My hope is that through the planning of this event, we can catalyze a group of developers locally and plug into other groups nationally to build the next generation of sustainability apps.
I’m already inspired by many good organizations doing related and similar work. I mentioned OpenPlans already above, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Code for America as well. Their recently rolled out the Brigade will give us and many others the ability to redeploy great new apps in other cities with much less effort than required before (read more here). If you are interested in this, I encourage you to sign up and to get involved on the developer list serve if you are more technically inclined. This will also let you get in touch with the many region specific groups too many to mention right now that are also doing great work in their hometowns (check some out at the brigade here).
There will be a lot more to say over the coming months about this summer’s Denver hackathon and about civic hacking more broadly. For now, I encourage you to reach out to us on Twitter, by email or in the comments if you want to contribute.
Jason Lally heads up the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, PlaceMatters’ inside-out R&D lab, building a community of tinkerers, hackers, designers, coders, and practitioners dedicated to building the next generation of tools and techniques for better decision making around planning and sustainability.