Hackathon! Coders and Civil Servants Unite to Fix SF

BY PETER ENZMINGER
August 15, 2011
Hackathon teams in action. Image courtesy Summer of Smart

A grown man napping on his laptop case. Daily visits from SF mayoral candidates. Keynote addresses from the Wigg Party, MIT's SENSEable Cities Lab, the Rebar Group, and the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Cold pizza after midnight. More than a hundred adults sitting around tables on the 5th floor of a Mid-Market office building on a Friday night. This is what ground zero of the open government movement looks like.

From July 22 through 24, the Gray AreaFoundation for the Arts hosted Urban Innovation Weekend 2: Sustainability, Energy and Transportation, the second "hackathon" in its Summer of Smart series, sponsored by SPUR and other local organizations. The hackathons are an open casting call for ideas on how technology and digital information can help government work better. Respondents ranged in age from their 20s to mid 50s, with specialities in everything from architecture to speech software. Think Wikipedia, only the authors are in the same room and are working on an entry for a concept that doesn’t yet exist. And they have 48 hours to develop a prototype. The first event focused on Community Development and Public Art, and the last, on August 19 through 21, will focus on Public Health and Nutrition.

Your correspondent arrived Friday evening as teams were forming. I made a beeline for Emily, a Muni employee who shared an idea that caught my fancy: using NextMuni data to improve Muni's internal communication and response time to line management issues. Our team also included Judy, an architect; Eden, a "code monkey"; Zach, a programmer/geographer; and Winnie, an urban planning grad student. On Saturday afternoon, we picked up Matt, an undergrad, urbanist and Bevan Dufty volunteer.

Our session had its particular rhythms: surges of information from our Muni insider, rounds of discussion to make sense of said information, revisions of initial ideas, repeat. We hit a wall at about 11:45 on Friday night when we realized we were trying to design a product for Muni employees about whose duties and difficulties we knew relatively little.

The following morning we took a fact-finding field trip to the Embarcadero Muni station, where we struck paydirt. Deneisha, a line supervisor, spent 20 minutes answering questions and discussing some of the recurring inefficiencies she encounters in her work.

We came away with a photograph and a cohesive vision. Where Muni currently relies on a single frequency radio, telephones and handwritten reports to communicate and log line-management issues, we envisioned a kind of Google doc: what if the detailed map visible to employees in the Office of Central Control and Line Management was interactive? What if anyone within the Muni intranet could a) open a trouble ticket by clicking on the real-time location of a light rail or bus vehicle, and b) close out a trouble ticket if the problem was within their power to resolve? What if the software could automatically generate trouble tickets if buses bunched too close together, or if station dwell time exceeded a certain limit? Such software could obviate the need for repeating the same message to multiple parties via time consuming voice-based communication.

On Saturday and Sunday, we created screenshots of a hypothetical user interface. On Sunday afternoon, our efforts were deemed worthy of a three-way tie for first place (check out the other Urban Innovation projects, too). Perhaps more importantly, on Wednesday July 27, Emily presented the idea to her supervisors at Muni. Who knows what will come next? 

Regardless of whether any projects are adopted, the Summer of Smart achieves a kind of success by recognizing the ability of motivated citizens to address problems they encounter everyday. Who better to address those challenges than the community of people who face them?

Learn more about Summer of Smart >>

Attend the August 19-21 Public Health Hackathon >>