Trees, Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and…Arduinos? Come to EcoCamp!

Trees, Green Stormwater Infrastructure, and…Arduinos? Come to EcoCamp!

My colleague Amelia Longo and I are hard at work – we have just seven days to go before Philly EcoCamp starts next week! EcoCamp – a combination of workshops, an unconference, and a hackathon – will be the most comprehensive event Azavea has ever organized. At three days, it’s even longer than the NASA Space Apps hackathon we hosted last year! We’re making  awesome t-shirts; we’ve confirmed an excellent, LEED-certified venue in Friends Center; we have a full slate of eight technology and environmental workshops; and we’ve received some great unconference sessions, hackathon ideas, and, of course, data! There’s still time to register  if you want to be a part of EcoCamp next weekend!

Azavea’s involvement in environment and sustainability work runs deep. GIS for sustainable communities is the tagline on our business cards. One of our longest-running and most successful projects has been the spatial analysis applications and expertise we provide for the Philadelphia Water Department’s green stormwater management programs . The Coastal Resilience mapping application we recently released with the Nature Conservancy provides important environmental planning tools, and we were just awarded an SBIR grant from the Department of Energy to develop more climate change modeling tools. Our flagship open source product, OpenTreeMap, promotes and facilitates urban forestry – a key sustainability strategy for reducing a city’s pollution, carbon footprint, and managing stormwater runoff.

We also happen to love civic hackathons. The proliferation of open data from governments and other organizations combined with the ingenuity of civic hackers and groups like Code for Philly presents an amazing potential for analyzing our world and the environment we live in.

So it should come as no surprise that after straddling these two communities ourselves for so long, we decided it was high time to bring more environmentalists and technologists together. Philly has had hackathons in politics, transportation, space science, accessibility, digital humanities, education, and loads of other fields. Why not the environment? Philly is home to organizations like the Sustainable Business Network, Grid Magazine, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Water Department, Philly Nexus, Clean Air Council, Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and Solar States – all leaders in sustainability. Aside from some very notable examples, the potential for collaboration between environmental experts and civic hackers in our city is ripe but relatively untapped.

We’re organizing EcoCamp to change that. But fostering real cross-domain collaboration requires more than getting people in the same room – we need to build capacity and create a space where technologists and environmentalists can speak the same language and consider the same challenges together. I’ve been to too many hackathons where technologists and subject matter experts start out collaborating on Saturday morning, only to diverge later. At the end, in part thanks to this frequent disconnect, some hackathon projects don’t have a “home” – an organization or users for whom the project fills a need and will actually use it. None of this is good news if we want our civic tech efforts to be inclusive and meaningful.

So we’ve incorporated a full day of workshops and an unconference into EcoCamp, alongside the hackathon. A diversity of perspective and expertise builds better hacks, and we hope these elements of the event will encourage that. Our environmental workshops will give participants a core understanding of environmental issues in our region, by going outside and pruning trees, exploring urban forestry science, delving into building energy data, and understanding green stormwater management . Our technology workshops will work the other side of the equation – teaching fundamentals of data visualization, crowdsourced mapping, online GIS, and electronic sensors. We hope this combined set of knowledge and skills building will provide ideas for hackathon projects and empower everyone to contribute.

Even with mentorship and training, a hackathon still isn’t for everyone. Don’t feel like hacking? Can’t stay the whole weekend? Want to thresh out an environmental question with like-minded individuals? Show off an initiative your organization is championing and get feedback? In the great tradition of other unconferences like PlanningCamp and TransparencyCamp, on Saturday we’ll have plenty of breakout rooms for anyone to lead a session on any topic. It’s way more fun than a traditional conference!

We’re striving to make EcoCamp exciting for everyone that wants to learn, do, or talk sustainability and technology. There are just a few days left to register – you don’t want to miss out!