Hacks for Democracy: There are Now Apps From That

Hacks for Democracy: There are Now Apps From That

Hacks for Democracy (Hacks4D) was the first hackathon that Azavea has organized, and we felt it was a smashing success.  For that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the participants and the sponsors.  We took a gamble on organizing Hacks for Democracy as a three week long “hackmonth” rather than a typical weekend hackathon.  As far as we know, Hacks4D is one of the first civic hacking efforts to combine so many events for such a long time period: a pre-hackathon brainstorming session, a weekend hackathon (generously hosted by Venturef0rth), and three weeks of follow-up events and a second round of judging and prizes.  At the outset, we were worried our experiment with follow up events might not work.  But we wanted to try something different because historically, civic hackathons have too often had a sustainability problem – while great for prototypes, there’s not enough time in a weekend to build, test, and deploy a high-quality piece of civic software.  Excitement dwindles after the weekend, and the community that came together disperses again.  While there have been exceptions — locally, Sheltr, Cost of Freedom and Councilmatic are all examples of successful follow-through — for the most part, the critics are right, and we wanted to try to improve on this.

Over 50 newbies and veterans in the Philadelphia civic hacking community came to our opening evening, 30 came to the hackathon, and about 10 attended every single one of our follow-up events.  Attendees ate almost all of our pizza and other refreshments, paid for in part by our generous sponsors Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, Esri, secondmuse, Jarv.us, and ElectNext who also contributed to the Hackathon’s prizes.  Six apps were created in all.  Of those, four applications worked tirelessly through the follow up weeks until our final event.

The Final Four

The final judging event on October 5th featured four teams who returned with significantly improved apps.

The Undecideds demoing Philly Voter Turnout Model

The Undecideds was the first team to demo their app, the Philly Voter Turnout Model.  The team was composed of Azavea developers Adam Hinz and Bennet Huber.  At the end of the first weekend, Hinz and Huber had a working heatmap of 800,000 Philadelphia voter registrations using our open-source geographic data processing engine, GeoTrellis.  Over the followup weeks, the duo worked with City Commissioner Stephanie Singer to geocode 40 million addresses from Philadelphia County voter registrations from historical elections.  That’s nearly 39 CDs worth of data – data that previously only existed on physical media at the Commissioner’s office before their project. Undecideds also added an improved user interface to change parameters for very specific geographic areas of Philadelphia and model possible election outcomes. This comprehensive use of geospatial data and analysis was enough for the judges to award the team the Esri-sponsored “Best Geospatial App” prize.

The State-Gov-Tracker team demoing their PA Statehouse dashboard app

Next to demo was my team, State-Gov-Tracker.  Chris Brown, Chris Nies, Jason Blanchard, Josh Borkowski, Lauren Gilchrist, Charlie Milner, Josh Darr, and I really only had command line data-gathering Python scripts at the end of the hackathon weekend and we were badly in need of a designer.  Luckily, Chris Nies’ friend and “CSS guru” Nick Weingartner was interested in joining in. Our app, State-Gov-Tracker, mashed up APIs like CiceroFacebookTwitterCartoDB and OpenStates, along with 700+ MBs of screen-scraped data from the Pennsylvania legislature’s website.  We came out of the process with a very quality piece of software that will make it easy for users to check a dashboard and learn about their Pennsylvania state senators and representatives and keep tabs on their ongoing activities.  We hope to go public soon and keep it relevant with blog posts of political analysis (from Chris Brown, who is a Political Science PhD candidate at U-Penn). While we were gunning for the “Most Improved” prize, the judges actually saw fit to award us with the “Greatest Potential Impact” award – something that we’re all proud of (and maybe even a bit shocked about!).

Electory team demoing their crowdsourced local election leaders database

The third demo of the evening was Electory, by Chris Alfano, Brett Goldman, Tim Wisniewski, Mjumbe Poe, Jim Bazis, Donovan Preddy, and others.  This app was complete enough after the first hackathon weekend to win 3rd place in Round 1.  Electory aims to be a crowdsourced database of neighborhood-level election leaders, volunteers, and party committee-people, making the process of contacting the most local and most common elected representatives much easier.  Electory added crucial functionality to their app in the followup nights, including electronic authentication of users who wish to add or edit information against the city voter file, using basic questions like date of birth, house number, and real name.  Electory is effectively the confluence of multiple proposals brought to Hacks for Democracy for a dataset of committee-people, a real need in the City Commissioner’s office, and Tim Wisniewski’s idea for an improvement on electronic voter authentication systems.  The app demonstrates that matchmaking and sharing ideas at the beginning of civic hackathons is crucial, despite the potentially competitive structure of these events.

Mike Zaleski demoing SEPTA Routes N Reps

Our final demo of the evening was Mike Zaleski’s SEPTA Routes n Reps app, which also had some help from City GIS folks Sarah Cordivano and David Walk.  Zaleski transformed the UI of his original app by using Twitter Bootstrap to create a quality mashup of SEPTA bus and train route data, OpenStates, and Cicero legislative districts, displayed through CartoDB.  The aim is to enable SEPTA commuters to more easily contact their elected representatives regarding service and schedule changes.  The judges liked Routes N Reps’ new design enough to award it the “Most Improved” prize.

Zaleski, being a lead developer at SEPTA itself, was even able to host his app on the SEPTA website and show it off to SEPTA’s Government Affairs department.  Zaleski said that SEPTA’s government team is potentially interested in the app, and gave him a list of possible improvements.  (He might need a break first!) We’re all certainly hopeful that this hackathon project continues its life as a functional piece of the Philadelphia area’s e-government infrastructure!

They All Won



The judges got into the app sustainability groove as well.  The three Round 2 prizes were supposed to be $500 each.  Upon seeing the quality of these apps, our judges – secondmuse‘s Mike Brennan, PPIIN‘s Neil Budde, and City Controller candidate Brett Mandel – decided that they wanted to encourage everyone to move forward.  So, they knocked the main prizes down to $300 and gave each of the 4 apps that made it through Round 2 $150 to go towards hosting and development costs.  Furthermore, Neil Budde said that the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network is interested in partnering with some of the apps to get them more widely used.  I know that’s something our State-Gov-Tracker team is considering, and it wouldn’t surprise me if other teams would be happy to collaborate with PPIIN as well.

So, did our gamble with Hacks for Democracy’s “hackmonth” format succeed?  You can use one of the apps and be your own judge, but count me as at least one hacker who’s hoping for more well-planned extended hackathons in the future.  As a friend of Azavea, we certainly hope you can attend the next one we organize, too!

(A more detailed Azavea Atlas blog entry on the Hacks for Democracy outcomes is available here.)