Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Philly Tech Week Hackathon Recap

On Saturday, April 28th, the 2nd Philly Tech Week came to a close.

Like the inaugural Philly Tech Week last year, this weeklong series of technology events and panels concluded with a hackathon focused on open government data and journalism.

This way to the hackathon

I gave a brief preview of this event over on the Code for America blog, and shared some observations on how I thought this event was pushing the boundaries of what the “traditional” notion of a hackathon is:

This event – which took place in conjunction with BarCamp News Innovation – was a mashup of journalism unconference and open data hackathon. More clearly than most events, this one underscored the important relationships between civic hackers and journalists, and the common interest they both have in open government data.

In my mind, this event also highlights the maturity of the open data and civic hacking cultures in Philadelphia – the only city to date to partner with Code for America for two years in a row.

The turnout at the event was awesome – a large crowd of participants gathered in a set of adjoining TV studios at Annenberg Hall on the Campus of Temple University. The crowd included developer, designers, journalists, data experts and other interested parties.

The sheer number of people at this year’s event far surpassed last year – a testament to the growing interest in open data in Philly, and new strategies for attracting an optimal number of hackathon participants.

One of the overarching themes of Philly Tech Week was digital inclusion – it has been widely stated that approximately 41 percent of Philadelphia residents lack access to the Internet. To ensure a focus on this issue at the hackathon, the Center for Public Interest Journalism, housed at Temple University, pledged $3,000 in prizes for the best mobile-focused projects.

As a result, 1/2 a dozen viable projects were demoed at the end of the day, most of them with a mobile access focus.

  • TextBlast – a community organizing tool based around SMS messaging.
  • Dispatch – an organizing and survey tool for taxi drivers that uses SMS messaging.
  • LGBT Rights – a mobile web application to matches a user’s location with information on their LGBT rights.
  • CouncilMatic – a web site that allows users to subscribe to information about matters before city council.
  • Money Talks – a web site that will allow detailed analysis of campaign finance reports.
  • Sheltr – an SMS and iPhone interface for the RHoK hackathon-born Sheltr project.

For me, some of the more powerful takeaways from this event were the diversity of the teams and the focus on previous hackathon projects.

The Money Talks team had a median age that was north of what is typically seen at civic hacking events; The LGBT Rights team included a journalist from the Philly Gay News; the Dispatch team decided on their project focus after hearing from a Philly taxi driver during the morning pitch session.

In addition, several of the project – TextBlast and CouncilMatic – were born at previous hackathons. Their creators used this past weekend as a sort of code sprint to further develop their projects and add new features.

The eventual winner of the event was Adam Hinz, who worked on adding an SMS interface and a native iPhone app for the Sheltr project. Sheltr is a project that came out of a Random Hacks of Kindness event in Philadelphia several months ago.

This underscores how hackathons in Philly – and elsewhere – are growing beyond the simple weekend project that gets forgotten after the adrenaline from the event wears off. The hackers behind these projects are continuing to develop them, and are using subsequent hacking events as an opportunity to recruit new talent or add new features.

Hopefully we’ll continue to see these trends at future events in Philly, and across the country.

More photos from the event are here.

2 responses to “Philly Tech Week Hackathon Recap”

  1. […] projects were judged by Mark Headd of Code for America, who wrote about the effort, Clinton Johnson of the City of Philadelphia, Erika Owens of Hacks/Hackers and also Amy Gahran of […]

  2. […] hackathon participants take a project from a previous event and build on it with their own work. It does happen but most agree it does not happen often […]

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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