Hack for MN 2013

By Ben Ortega, Senior Software Engineer at GovDelivery

On June 1st we celebrated the first annual National Day of Civic Hacking, a day dedicated to leveraging technology and open data to improve communities.

Hard at Work Hacking at DevJam in Minneapolis
Hard at Work Hacking at DevJam in Minneapolis, Open Twin Cities

Not satisfied with a typical single day event, our local civic-minded techies at Open Twin Cities organized Hack for MN, a weekend-long hackathon and competition where more than 100 techies and other interested parties teamed up and spent the weekend planning, brainstorming, and implementing ideas and tools to improve our communities.

Everyone got together Saturday morning at DevJam headquarters in south Minneapolis after having spent the prior days and weeks discussing project ideas on the web. Each project idea was assigned to a table, and after some opening remarks from organizers and local government officials, participants began to self-organize. People flowed from table to table discussing ideas; some projects never quite got off the ground, and others emerged spontaneously from chance meetings and conversations.

Once the afternoon arrived, tech-heavy teams went right to work crunching data and planning applications. Other teams took a service design approach, thinking carefully about big ideas such as technology access or sustainable development and brainstorming about how to better connect communities, and all the different personas, with available resources.

The teams spent most of Saturday afternoon coding and whiteboarding; the sound of collaborations and talk of the best open data sources hummed at lightning speed. Fortunately for us, the DevJam space (a former café) offered plenty of sunlight and open air, which lightened the intense hacking going on. We even got a surprise visit from an ice cream truck, which gave everyone a chance to relax for a bit.

By Sunday afternoon, the crowd had thinned out a bit as teams began to run out of gas, but nine teams powered through and presented their projects, which drew inspiration from a variety of community needs and data sources:

  • A system to find your polling place using SMS
  • Connect Me Minneapolis, a system for cataloging and discovering community technology assets
  • Solvabl- a website for tutoring and mentoring high school students interested in developing technical skills
  • An open Wi-Fi database for community Wi-Fi finding and geolocation use
  • Code For Neighbors- a localized neighbor directory/alert system
More Hacking at Hack for MN Event
More Hacking at Hack for MN Event, Open Twin Cities

I was honored to serve on the judging panel, especially since we were able to award prizes to every team that made it to the end of the hackathon.  Prizes included meetings with local government officials or software entrepreneurs to determine next steps and subscriptions to GIS tools. All participants also received credits towards tech books, cloud computing and consulting services to continue developing their ideas.

All in all, it was great to see to both seasoned and aspiring hackers alike engaged and working together to tap into the potential of open tools and public data. It’s also inspiring to see development on several projects that have continued beyond the hackathon. It was great to represent GovDelivery as a judge and advisor, and I look forward to many years of hackathons to come.



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