A civic hacker’s highlights from Philly Hack For Democracy 2015

Democracy Hackathon T-shirt

Usually when I go to hackathons I’m frantically working all weekend building something.  This weekend I was invited  to be a judge at Code for Philly’s Hack for Democracy. The experience was very different since I had the opportunity to look at a hackathon from a completely new viewpoint.

Teams hacked on open data and built visualizations and apps that aim to improve participation, inform voters and promote transparency. Here are my highlights.

Angel Rivera‘s kick-off talk on Saturday morning

A well-known figure in the civic hacking community, Angel has an incredible amount of experience and told us he’d attended 94 hackathons (including this one and the other hack he would be attending at a school later that day!)

He presented advice to the participants and talked about effective organization skills, having clear direction based on real needs and appointing a team lead to provide regular checks and course corrections. Above all, he told everyone to focus on the core requirements and not get lost down technical rabbit holes like time-wasting login screens. When you’ve only got a day to produce an MVP  it’s especially important to be focussed on the target.

“No login screens, OK?!”

Philly tech scene initiative and camaraderie

Big data is a challenge; especially when you only have a few hours to build something meaningful with it. Voting data is big data. Storage, transfer, processing time and skills gaps got in the way but team members used their collective knowledge and initiative to overcome most of the hurdles; and they shared their work and data across teams for mutual benefit. The guys from local B-corp Azavea, Christopher Brown and Nathan Zimmerman came up with a great concept called ‘Social Vote‘ and got hold of a data set containing voter turnout information for the whole of PA by paying $20 online. Millions of rows of data were returned and they managed to geocode close to 1M Philadelphia-related rows on Saturday night. The data was used for their own project and also shared with Zach Rendin and Phil Pierdomenico for their project to map and visualize voter turnout in a specific Census Block.

Other examples of team members helping out other teams was demonstrated time and again throughout the weekend and showed the strong sense of camaraderie in the Philly tech scene.

Zach and Phil demonstrating their voter turnout map
Zachary Rendin and Phil Pierdomenico demonstrating their voter turnout map. The result of cross-team collaboration and initiative.

Being asked why people volunteer to do civic hacking work (when they could go out and make tons of money instead!)

This kind of summed up my answer. Thanks Sarah :)

Friday night’s Community Needs Assessment led to inclusive apps

I was impressed that a polling place locator idea for improving access to information about polling locations was extended to take into account building accessibility information and advice for people with disabilities. This happened because representatives from Adapt and the Disability Rights Network (DRN) were present and gave their input to the ideas. This theme carried through the weekend and many of the teams focussed on accessibility and inclusiveness in their projects. Tim Wisniewski made use of aria tags in his Ward Leader Baseball Cards app to ensure his web page was accessible to screen readers.

Friday night community needs assessment at Philadelphia City Hall
Friday night community needs assessment at Philadelphia City Hall allowed everyone to give feedback on ideas via direct discussion or by fixing post-it notes on the proposals

Team PhillyVoteCheck demonstrated not 1 but 2 working apps

This large team was incredibly focussed and organized and had a fantastic mix of both technical and non-technical team members. Faye Anderson pitched the original idea and expertly steered the project. Jessica Underwood worked on the design, logos etc. Kathryn Killbrew built out the on back-end APIs that were used by the front-end developers. Tyler Wiest developed an iPhone app and Mike Wangia used Bootstrap to improve on the City’s vote location finder by making a responsive webapp.  Also, the team was supported by Hamid Bundu doing QA. Impressive result and great demo which included voter registration checks, election place mapping and  extra information about accessibility and alternative voting for people with disabilities.

Team members hacking.
Team PhillyVoteCheck busy hacking

No winners or prizes!

I think this came as a surprise to some of the participants but the organizers made a choice to avoid the traditional prize-giving ceremony at the end of the hackathon. Instead, a panel of experts offered advice, feedback and encouragement to the teams in the hope that they would feel motivated to continue development of the ideas formed at the hackathon. Since Code For Philly (the group that ran the hackathon) meets for weekly hacks, there is ample opportunity for the ideas to grow and flourish, and handing out prizes risked demotivating the losers. The varied panel of judges had a great deal of knowledge and were able to give advice on ways the projects could continue. A few questions were raised over privacy but it was argued that all the data that was shown and used over the weekend came from the public domain; it just usually gets into the hands of people that use it to campaign and influence rather than bi-partisan groups that are interested in open data and transparency.

There were lots of other achievements over the weekend but these are the ones that stood out for me. The event was fun and a success. Even though the projects are in their early stages, they all have the potential to make an impact. Thanks to Chris Alfano, Dawn McDougal and Lauren Ancona at Code For Philly as well as Tim Wisniewski, City of Philadelphia Chief Data Officer for bringing everyone together and making it happen.

See Technically Philly’s news article for a full list of all the projects that were demonstrated

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting: sounds like a meeting of smart, altruistic people striving to make the world a better place.

    Keep up the good work all, and looking forward to further updates on hacking happenings James!

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