Philly EcoCamp Delivers 5 Projects and a Lot of Learning

Philly EcoCamp Delivers 5 Projects and a Lot of Learning

Azavea has built up a bit of a pedigree with the civic hackathons we’ve organized in Philly these past few years.  2012’s Hacks for Democracy pioneered the “finishathon” concept by coupling a weekend hackathon with a series of follow-up events in the proceeding weeks to finalize and polish projects.  Last year, we collaborated with NASA to host the global mainstage of the 2013 International Space Apps Challenge in Philadelphia – at that time, Space Apps was the largest hackathon in history with close to 10,000 participants worldwide.  Just a couple weeks ago this June 20-22, we organized Philly EcoCamp, a 3-day weekend aimed at exploring the intersection of environment, sustainability, and technology.

We were ambitious in planning EcoCamp.  While we had a civic hackathon, we also planned out a full day of environment and technology-focused workshops, and set the scene for a participant-driven unconference.  The whole event gathered over 90 people.  Our audience was incredibly diverse – especially compared to technology events – with technologists, environmentalists, young, older, women, men, experienced practitioners, and passionate newbies all represented.

The Participants

Sitting at the intersection of the Philly environmental and technology communities as Azavea does, one of our key hopes for EcoCamp was that it would help mix these two communities and foster more connections.  

Our hopes were realized.  Many of our attendees had never been to a hackathon or unconference before. The beginner-level  technology Friday workshops were packed, and the environmental sessions were well attended as well.  Our 5 hackathon teams had a wide array of skills and expertise, sometimes with those very new to programming pairing up with experienced mentors on the same team.

The Projects and Open Data

The teams spent the weekend hackathon building technology tools and visualizations addressing a range of issues related to environment and sustainability. Their work was boosted by the exciting release of over 15 brand new open data sets by several City of Philadelphia departments just in time for the weekend.

Our five hackathon teams put these datasets to good use.  Our hackathon judges – Sarah Low from the US Forest Service, Clare Billett from the William Penn Foundation, and Chris Alfano from – had a challenge allocating the prizes!

Stormfighter was a QGIS spatial analysis project that used Water Department data and sought to answer the question of where the most “overburdened” storm drains are – i.e., the drains furthest away from rain barrels and other green infrastructure – and where new rain barrels are most needed.  Moving forward, the team wants to add topography data to see how rain will flow, and make the project a web-based map that users could use to “adopt” the cleaning out of storm drains like what has been done elsewhere with fire hydrants and tsunami sirens.  The Stormfighter team won a 1-year membership sponsored by ZipCar.

The LitterDexPHL team sought to answer a question from the Streets Department: are there public outreach messages around litter and street sanitation reaching the right demographic groups?  The team combined the Streets Department’s “Litter Index” survey data with US Census tracts and information about the most common languages spoken in each area of the city. In recognition of their complex GIS work, the judges awarded LitterDexPHL $350 of CartoDB-sponsored credits.

Philly Urban Ag, expanded on the already-existing Grounded in Philly app and added land use data from DVRPC and more to identify potential new spaces for urban agriculture.  The judges thought the Urban Ag team had the best presentation, and so awarded two prizes: a Behind-the-Scenes tour of City Hall donated by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and a MilkCrate-sponsored prize package including memberships to the app and tickets to their upcoming launch party.

The MyPark team concocted a crowdsourcing app using Parks and Recreation data on parklands and trails, intended for park users to be able to report problems like downed trees over bike paths and other concerns.  In honor of the biking, trails, and “transportation” theme, the judges awarded the team six Uber-sponsored VIP passes.

Finally, the MilkCrate team, in addition to being one of our in-kind prize sponsors and having a significant head start on their sustainable business app startup before EcoCamp, used the hackathon as an opportunity to continue to build out more features in the MilkCrate app, like a data import system and a map feature.  MilkCrate CTO mentored and paired with a relative newcomer to programming, and the two of them worked on these features together.  In recognition of their collaboration, our judges awarded MilkCrate the Solar States rooftop solar panel tour prize!

Multiple Types of Events

In addition to a hackathon we held eight 75-minute environment and technology workshops at EcoCamp, as well as an unconference. These additional event formats were part of our aim to make EcoCamp a place where the technology and environmental communities came together.

The response to our workshops was very positive. The technology workshops like Chris Nies’ and Matt Fritch’s Arduinos and Sensors session, Mike Tedeschi’s and Christopher Taylor’s Data Visualization session, Michelle Schmitt’s CartoDB workshop, and Aaron Ogle’s hands-on Shareabouts demo were standing-room-only.  Our environmental presenters included Rich Freeh, Adam Agalloco, and Alon Abramson who presented on building energy efficiency data; Tiffany Ledesma and Matt Fritch who taught us about green stormwater infrastructure; Andrew Emma who gave an outdoor exploration into urban tree maintenance; and Sarah Low, Lara Roman, and Lindsay Walker who delved into all things urban forestry.

Our unconference on Saturday generated some good discussions, but it didn’t take off as much as we hoped.  We had a few sessions around community and citizen engagement in sustainability efforts, effective crowdsourcing of environmental data, and Morgan Berman lead a session around the upcoming MilkCrate Philly app.  But we had room for a lot more sessions that didn’t materialize.

Round of Applause

EcoCamp would have been nothing without the impressive amount of workshop leaders, judges, volunteers, hackers, and attendees that came out to Friends Center over the 3-day weekend.  Amelia and I, and others on the Azavea business development team worked hard on outreach leading up to the event, and received amazing support from groups like Girl Develop It , SheTech Philly, and Code for Philly, government agencies like DVRPC’s IREG, environmental partners like the Sustainable Business Network and Green Philly Blog.

Our sponsors, including RackspaceOpenTreeMapZivtechSolar StatesCartoDBUberMilkcrate PhillyZipcar, and Mugshots Coffee House each provided crucial financial or in-kind support to make the event possible, including some amazing prize packages for the winning hackathon teams.  Thanks to them too!


Final Thoughts

Still, EcoCamp shows alternative programming can play a valuable role in attracting a diverse audience.  I think the fact that we offered the workshops and encouraged collaboration more than competition at the hackathon was key to bringing a broad audience together.  There is more to these events than coding software and soldering electronics, and we want to encourage other hackathons and civic technology events to think about how they too can break the mold with additional schedule programming like EcoCamp.