Saturday - Dec 16, 2017

Putting city data to work at the Hackathon


Twenty-three data sets, twenty people and three hours. That’s the raw material for the kind of innovation that comes out of civic hackathons like the one held last month at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville as part of Open Data Day. The day-long conference on the benefits and uses of accessible government data culminated with three groups poring over open City of Asheville data and finding creative ways to put the information to use.

Open Data Day Asheville

The winning team from the 2012 Hackathon pores over open City of Asheville databases.


“There was probably more excitement about the hackathon than anything else” says GIS analyst Scott Barnwell. Barnwell and other members of the City’s Information Technology team arranged the data sets using information that was largely already available to the public but that was enhanced by being consolidated into a City of Asheville Open Data catalog.

Some 23 sets include databases of City-owned property, business license locations and information sets culled from the GIS-based mapAsheville tool.

“The city has a lot of information out there and we keep adding more as we think of ways to apply tools like mapAsheville,” Barnwell says. “The trick is and will continue to be how to best get it into the hands of the people who can benefit from it.”

In recent years, the City of Asheville has upgraded its data managing systems, allowing the IT Services Department to compile data and make it available online in places like mapAsheville, but it is how the information can be utilized that makes a hackathon so interesting.

A hackathon is an opportunity to apply raw data to serve a purpose, be it a civic benefit or financial opportunity. Businesses rely on government data every day. So do groups like neighborhood or preservation organizations. Data represents opportunity and that aspect wasn’t lost on the ODD 2012 attendees.

Three groups tackled the hackathon challenge to come up with some sort of application or revelation using the open data they had at hand, and their efforts went in unexpected and interesting directions. (Click here to see more about how each hackathon team used open data at the 2012 Open Data Day blog.

“First of all, anyone can hack,” says GIS analyst Dave Michelson. “You don’t need to know how to write code, you just need to have ideas. We only had three programmers in the room. And it was really cool to see what the groups came up with.”

The winning group, as voted by the other hackathon participants, created a mapping tool that relates public art to bus stops and considered how this could be used to boost bus ridership.

“A hackathon is like an incubator for ideas,” Michelson says. “It’s a new way to engage the community and create a startup mentality,” Michelson says. The goal, he says, is to enable the community and government to be more innovative.

Michelson points to a community initiative by the Code for America Brigade that is underway to build a volunteer base of creative and interested people willing to carry on the civic hacking mission. As that mission expands, he expects the City will get even more requests for the kinds of data that open even further collaboration between the municipal organization and the population it serves.

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