Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Making Room For Science

Interesting things are happening at Philly Hackathons.


Increasingly, participants at local events are opting to work on what would best be described as “citizen science” projects – projects not focused on the development of an app as a final product, but where an app or device constructed at the event is the means to a loftier end.

The goal of these projects – a better understanding of how our city works and ways that we can improve it. Some great examples of these citizen science projects being worked on by Philly hackers are:

Project GreenSTEM – Originally developed as part of last year’s AT&T EduTech Hackathon, this project is focused on the development of an Arduino-powered urban sensor network. It’s currently being integrated into the curriculum at four of Philadelphia’s public schools.

CyclePhilly – Though this project is centered on an app, the ambitions of its sponsors are as big as the Delaware Valley. The goal of the project is to get as many bikers as possible to use the app to generate data on how they travel, which will inform planning decisions made by the City of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Climate Tracker – Another mobile sensor network project, this one is focused on bus-mounted devices that will collect climate and air quality information from around Philadelphia. The data generated will be used in conjunction with other data sets to inform both citizens and researchers.

These citizen science projects still make up a minority of the things worked on at hackathons and local hack nights, but understanding why participants are opting to work on them can give us insights into how we might alter the structure of hackathons – to make them more effective and to help ensure the work being done at these events is sustained over the long haul.

Opting for Science

One of the unifying characteristics of the project listed above is that each is focused on the generation of data – data that can be used by others to make better decisions. The apps and sensors developed as part of these projects are incidental to a larger, more important goal. Generating data that can be used as part of scientific or administrative processes.

This is a fairly dramatic departure from the usual app-centric focus of hackathons.

The reasons that we are seeing more citizen science projects turn up at hackathons is the result of a couple of different factors. First, the availability of cheap, powerful microcomputers and sensors technology. Products like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, Ninja Blocks others are making it incredibly cheap to obtain, work with and create powerful new devices.

It’ also becoming easier for mainstream programmers to start to work with hardware, robotics and other kinds of physical device technologies. These developments are putting pressure on the traditional structure of hackathons, which are set up to produce apps.

Most hackathons are set up to run over a specific period of time – much like a sprint in agile software development. And many of the conventions used in hackathons (like demoing a workable prototype at the end) conform to the practices of software development methodologies like Scrum. (This isn’t surprising since hackathons originally came out of the world of software development.)

In short, hackathons are almost always structured in a traditional way – one designed to deliver apps, not citizen science projects. So the fact that we are starting to see these projects developed at hackathons despite the structural bias toward apps is noteworthy.

Making Hackathons Better

So what do all these citizen science projects tell us about how we should structure hackathons going forward – in short, we need to make room for science.

We need to rethink the typical weekend hackathon and the focus on building narrowly focused apps. We need to find structures that support the development of different ideas with longer term goals, that may not have a finished app that can be loaded in a web browser or pulled up on a mobile device at the end of a weekend. We need to encourage projects that are focused on collecting data, from all over our city, that can help us better understand how it works – data that can be used by others to conduct research, or build apps of their own.

This is starting to happen in Philly, and in other places as well. One notable example here is the upcoming EcoCamp event being sponsored by Azavea. It features a hackathon that is paired with an unconference and workshops – a pretty cool idea that I hope leads to some interesting citizen science projects. Code for Philly’s weekly hack nights have also been instrumental in helping these science projects move along the path to viability as well – another reason to love (and support) your local Code for America Brigade.

This doesn’t mean that the standard weekend hackathon for building apps is going away. Just that we need to think clearly about the kind of events we want, and what we hope to get out of them.

Looking forward to more hackathons in Philly, and more citizen science projects.

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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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