New York hackathon looks to use open data to assist with city governance

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on February 24, 2014

From The News Desk

This past weekend thousands of hackers, coders, and open-data activists showed up to their local cities' events to celebrate "International Open Data Day," which was created to support "the adoption of open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments." More than 140 cities worldwide offered hackathons where anyone and everyone could show up to help develop softwares that utilize whatever open data each city provided.

New York, not a city without its own open data trove, also participated, but used this event as way to garner support for even more open data participation on the city's part. While still holding the "Code Across America" title, it was not a hackathon but deemed a "prototype-athon."

The event, which was sponsored by Code For America and New York nonprofit BetaNYC as well as hosted at NYU Poly's Manhattan incubator, wanted to go further than the purview of a usual hacking event. Instead of giving attendees an abyss of data from which they could build various apps, it looked at the current data and asked participants to both use and it dream of ways the data could be improved.

BetaNYC's co-founder Noel Hidalgo explained to me that the roots of getting more open data available from New York City is anything but new. For more than a decade people have been advocating for more transparency on what's going on at a civic level, which can be attained by merely providing more open data.

In the past few years the City has promoted several initiatives and all eyes are on the new mayor Bill de Blasio, to see how he furthers them.

The initiatives already in place do use open data, but the data provided could be even better. "We're hitting our stride with data richness," Hidalgo said. "Not necessarily with data quality."

That is, the city is making more information available, but it's not necessarily the most useful information. He's hoping that city officials will see this call and act. Hidalgo saw this weekend as a way to show the city what can be made with its open data network, and how useful richer data would be to these programs.

The topics that each project tackled had hefty civic outlooks. Two projects looked at improving how disaster relief data can be funneled to the masses; one provided a tool for families to more easily see more information about local high schools, where they are, and how easily accessed they are by public transit; another made data visualizations of noise complaints. The tying bind was that the initiatives stemmed from already-available sources and looked at ways the sources could be improved upon to become even more useful.

Hidalgo sees this as a way to not only get New York citizens involved in open data advocacy, but to exhibit to city officials how important open data is. "What we're doing today is what we've been asking the city to do for eight weeks," he said, pointing to the early days of the de Blasio inauguration. He and BetaNYC are aware  that the early days of a new elected official are the most crucial, at the same time this new mayor may have been caught off guard by a few weather-related city emergencies. The "prototype-athon" is just a way to remind those around of the important of these projects.

Now we wait and see how the city responds, in addition to the other hundreds of cities that participated. While it's good that New York quite a bit of open data available, has some legwork still to do.

At the same time, it has quite a bit of other non-technological problems that de Blasio should be focusing on as well.

[Image via Noel Hidalgo's Flickr]