MoCo Hopes Hackathon Leads To Innovation

The National Day of Civic Hacking came to Montgomery County last weekend

About 30 computer programmers gathered last weekend in Rockville for what county officials hope is the first step in turning government databases full of spreadsheets into useful phone apps or other software.

That could mean an app to show bus riders where the next bus is, a way to connect restaurants with leftover food to food shelters before goods go to waste or a program that would let homeowners know what size solar panels they could install on a roof.

Montgomery County was one of about 100 government and non-government organizations to host a hackathon during last weekend’s National Day of Civic Hacking. But for Montgomery, the one-day event on Saturday at The Universities at Shady Grove, was an important first step.

Montgomery County Chief Innovation Officer Dan Hoffman said he hopes next spring to put on a more substantial event, perhaps an overnight with more incentives for coders and graphic designers to take Montgomery’s open data and transform it into tools for everyday life.

“In a little under two hours, we don’t expect you to dev up some type of prototype, but we are expecting something that conveys functionality and user experience, even if it’s just conceptual,” Hoffman told the group after five pitches from county and federal government employees. “One of the biggest things we want to get out of this event is building this community of civic-oriented, data-oriented folks.”

Hoffman put out word of the event through some listservs, known data gurus and local colleges. About half of those who pre-registered showed up, but a number of people who didn’t also made their way to the event. With D.C.’s larger, Google-sponsored event on the same day, Hoffman was pleased with the number of people who showed interest in some Montgomery County civics.

The group received five reverse pitches, a proposal from public servants to a developer.

Montgomery County Chief Information Officer Sonny SegalLeslie Hamm, from the county’s MC311 service, pitched an idea for an app that would organize and group MC311 service requests so residents could know what various issues were most pressing in their neighborhoods, whether its garbage pick-up service, a broken parking meter or a complaint about Ride On.

“I’ve been with the county for just over 12 years and I’m amazed at the level of activism for so many different things that’s out there,” said Hamm, former assistant director at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center. “The folks who came to these meetings weren’t just interested in the issues, they had skills and backgrounds in it. We had urban planners and traffic management professionals. These people want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be neat if they could go to the mobile device and quickly put in their zip code to see what’s going on?”

County Council staff member Linda McMillan presented a pitch for a Food Recovery Application that would connect those who have extra perishable food supply with shelters, food pantries or others that are working with the county’s new Food Recovery Working Group.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Sam Bronson presented an idea for more marketing of the agency’s safe water data, information which is available but that most people rarely take time to look at. Jessica Jones, from the county’s Department of the Environment, pitched an app that gives people advice on how to green their homes based on a property’s layout and location.

Silver Spring resident Kurt Raschke talked about a program that would set up a geospatial component to transit system data. The app would answer questions like “Where can transit take me in the next 30 minutes,” or “What bus route should I take to get to the nearest Chinese food restaurant?”

“The data is out there. You can provide data for transit riders that is immediately actionable,” Raschke said.


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