‘Civic Hacking': When Government Agencies And Geeks Get Along

Frank Jones presents Play IT Safe, a prototype of a website that would monitor park safety based on real-time conditions. His project was one of about a dozen presented Sunday at Music City Center. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Frank Jones presents Play IT Safe, a prototype of a website that would monitor park safety based on real-time conditions. His project was one of about a dozen presented Sunday at Music City Center. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Dozens of programmers spent the weekend at a “civic hackathon” — which, to the untrained ear, sounds like they pulled off some top-secret Edward Snowden maneuvering. In reality, it was an amicable collaboration with the powers-that-be, in which developers pored over government data (freely released by Metro Nashville earlier this month) and found ways to make it useful.

Obtaining government data is often a cumbersome process, and doing anything interesting with it often is cumbersome too. (Have you ever tried to analyze data off of 2,000 handwritten pages of documents? Take it from someone who’s done it: You don’t want to try.)

The city’s open data initiative wants to make sure that government datasets are quickly available in a clean, workable format. And creative coders can make the data user-friendly, interactive and easy to visualize, which is beneficial to the community. It’s a big, happy marriage of geek and government.

After two days of work at Hack For Change Nashville at Music City Center, most of the dozen or so projects were in the prototype stage — not developed to the point where I’d want to use them on a regular basis. Some groups might continue to develop their work now that the conference is done, and the city might decide to foster some of the projects, says Yiaway Yeh, the city’s innovations officer.

Here were some of the top projects presented:

Nashploration

Nashploration turns discovering Nashville into a social studies game. Teachers can create scavenger hunts for their students, who in turn have to check in at these sites around the city. The game’s developers said it’s a way to help students get exercise while learning about their city.

Datasets used: public art, historic landmarks, parks

iTNerary

iTNerary finds users’ locations and plans a route based on where they want to go. They can search for nearby parks, restaurants, public wifi locations and historical sites and add it to an itinerary. Out of all the projects presented, this one seemed the most polished and functional and even has a publicly accessible test website.

Datasets used: public art, historic landmarks, parks, public wifi, bus routes, Yelp

Sweet Spot

Sweet Spot predicts gentrification — at least, that’s the goal. The website pinpoints where construction costs on new building permits exceed the median income of a neighborhood. It’s a very cool and relevant concept, but the developers admitted that they would want to do more research on the conditions of gentrification before they released an app about it.

Datasets used: building permits, U.S. Census

Play IT Safe

Play IT Safe scores how safe a public park is at any given time. Sensors at the entrance of each park calculate light and activity in real-time — the more light and foot traffic, the higher the safety index. This would obviously require some monetary investment from the city to set up sensors, but I thought it was an innovative way to integrate natural conditions with fairly static data.

Datasets used: public parks, police stations, fire stations

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.