Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Seed Projects For Civic Hackathons

An apropos way to help the NE Wisconsin civic hacking community grow and be able to enjoy the visible and tangible fruits of work on civic tech is to plant and cultivate a few seed projects.

I developed thirteen recommendations to make the next NE Wisconsin civic hackathon significantly better than the first one, as discussed in “Bolder, Brighter, Better: The Next NE Wisc Civic Hackathon.” One of those recommendations is to encourage and assist in the development of civic hack seed projects. Ideas for those seed projects can be found in “10 Steve Jobs Secrets For A World-Class Civic Hackathon,” “DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015: Top 10 Hacks,” “Ideation Session For Non-Code-Focused Civic Hackers,” in other posts throughout DHMN Civic Hacks, and by using Google to scour the Interwebs for civic hacks.

You might ask, ‘why do you think seed projects will help the next hackathon?’ The great ecosystem that developed around Mike Putnam’s AppletonAPI and “Is It Recycling Week?” app (IIRW) at the June 6 hackathon is clear evidence of the value of seed projects. Mike’s two hacks gave other people something to contribute to and showed them a real-life local example of civic hacking that they could copy, leverage or do a riff on. You can read about that in “Day-After Report: DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015” and in an upcoming post from Mike. Depending on how things develop, one of the projects inspired by Mike’s work might even spin off into its own seed project.

We’ve made progress toward launching a second civic hack seed in NE Wisconsin -- a Community Mesh Network project. There are five people who’ve said they want to be part of the project team. (If you’re reading this and want to get involved with a community mesh network, email me at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com.) The tipping point for turning this into a viable civic hack seed project will be getting a team lead who (1) knows lots about community mesh networks or (2) is an effective project lead and is willing to learn enough about mesh networks to herd the technical and non-technical cats who want to be part of the project. Please raise your hand if you’re that cat herder!

Maybe we can get someone from EDS to help…

A community mesh network is a wireless community network that uses a mesh network design for connecting everyone who wants to be part of the network. There is plenty of information online and in the brains of people in NE Wisconsin about mesh networks, so we should be able to design a prototype system and test it fairly quickly. (...and then Murphy’s Law starts to kick in…)

If you want to get a head start on grokking mesh networks, check out the Wired article, “It's Time to Take Mesh Networks Seriously.”

A third possible germinator is WhereToGo (WTG), or something in the vicinity of that general concept. WTG is short for “What’s Happening & Where To Go Around Here.” This civic hack would have a mobile-first design, and could fall into the SoLoMo category (social, local, mobile) depending on the ambition level of the WTG team. The primary usage for WTG will probably be as a smartphone app, but it makes sense to use responsive design that enables laptop or desktop users to find out what’s going on in our area. The initial MVP (minimum viable product) would likely be just the local and mobile components. Incorporating social components would be more appropriately worked on after it’s been shown that the MVP is usable and is getting traction in beta testing with area residents.

In “10 Steve Jobs Secrets For A World-Class Civic Hackathon,” there are quite a few civic hack examples from other communities to leverage for WTG. If someone decides to begin working on a WTG-style civic hack, I’ll reach out to other communities and civic hackers to get more info on what they have done in this space. (If you’d like to lead this project, you can call the project or app anything you want. WTG is just the TLA I created to describe the concept.)

Below is my list of most probable candidates for civic hack seeds.
  • AppletonAPI / Is It Recycling Week? / CityDataAPI Repository
  • Community Mesh Network
  • Where To Go
  • Transportation Team: Transit info, GTFS, SMSMyBus, etc.
  • Crime Data: At least one civic hackathon participant worked on crime data; many cities have something related to crime; first civic hack was crime / map mashup
  • VIP / WeVote: Timely for November elections if civic hacking event held in October; some interest in voting hacks at June 6 hackathon; see previous posts
  • Open311 or some mashup of services and data sources to identify a city's top concerns
If you’re willing to be the lead person for any of the above civic hack projects other than AppletonAPI (Mike Putnam’s the project lead for that), please let me know so I can publicize that and let interested civic hackers know who to contact if they want to help. If you know of a different civic hack you’d like to launch as both a personal project and an opportunity for people looking to help work on someone else’s hack, I’d love to know about that, too.

FYI -- It appears someone in the city of Appleton decided the June 6 DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 was a worthwhile event. There is serious discussion about planning a second civic hackathon in Appleton. It would be good to have a few seed projects already sprouting when that hackathon is held.

I’m also hoping there will be strong interest in NE Wisconsin cities to host at least one other civic hackathon before the next Appleton event. Any of the above listed projects can easily be used as a seed civic hack for the host city of the next hackathon. Or you might be interested in a different project with strong ties or application for your home city.

Remember, our focus is on connecting and building the civic hacking community of NE Wisconsin.

What’s developed in one city will most likely be applicable to or easily customized for other cities in our region. So it doesn’t really matter if we build the initial version of a civic hack for Appleton, Oshkosh, Green Bay, De Pere, Fond du Lac, Sturgeon Bay, Marinette, Ripon, Kaukauna or any other city in NE Wisconsin. A community mesh network built first in Ripon could be copied or improved in Appleton, and vice versa.

In upcoming weeks, I’ll write posts about community mesh networks, a WhereToGo type of smartphone app, potential Transportation Team hacks and Crime Data. Mike P has AppletonAPI and IIRW well underway and will be writing a future post to bring us up to date. For those people who want to work on a seed project related to voting, see “Part 1: Civic Hacks For Better Voting,”  “Voting Hacks Part 2: New Voting App for Appleton,” and “Voting Hacks Part 3: Examples of Civic Hacks For Better Voting.”

Nietzsche said, “Everyone who enjoys thinks that the principal thing to the tree is the fruit, but in point of fact the principal thing to it is the seed. -- Herein lies the difference between them that create and them that enjoy.”

Create. Plant a seed and help it grow.


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