How a hackathon can transform your community

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What started as an uphill battle in Burlington, Vermont on the National Day of Civic Hacking in June 2013, transversed into an understanding between local government, non-profits, the media, and the community four months later. What they came to understand was that we can grow stronger when we work together. When we partner. When we work on stuff that matters.

Robert Coleburn, a Technology Librarian (and systems administrator) at Fletcher Free Library, jumped at the opportunity to partner with Code for Burlington, a Code for America brigade, to help host a hackathon on the last weekend in October called Hack the Stacks. The event drew over 30 people volunteering to improve their community through open source technology.

"The hackathon event is exactly the kind of thing that the library wants to promote," Coleburn said. "Promoting an event like this is right up our alley and where we want to go."

Librarians like Coleburn realize that libraries are transforming beyond what they used to be, into community hubs and centers for technology.

"It’s great to see both existing projects and new projects being worked on," said brigade captain and event organizer Jason Pelletier. "It’s also nice to see the momentum for existing projects that were starting during the National Day of Civic Hacking event held four months ago."

One existing project is a game designed to get children more interested in local environment, particularly for the community and environmental ecosystem around Lake Champlain. The game is called Lakecraft and once developed will support the educational efforts happening at ECHO, a lake aquarium and science center.

The project team didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, spending valuable time and resources on something that might not be used or adopted in the end, so they decided to build their project on top of an already popular game, Minecraft. The team integrated GIS information for Lake Champlain creating their own world within Minecraft. During Hack the Stacks, they successfully recruited a Java developer to help them as they go forward with Lakecraft.

Another new app being developed could save the library real dollars (and trees). It’s called the "Green" printing app. Its purpose? To inform and remind a library patron using the computer lab of how many pages they are going to print, before they do so. It’s a simple idea and Coleburn has been looking for an app for that for years. A library patron may have sent a 50-page document to the printer but actually only wants to print just a few pages. A volunteer at the hackathon was interested in solving this problem too, and within a day and a half, a working prototype was developed and tested in the computer lab.

One group rebuilt a website for a non-profit, saving money they would have spent on a web development and design company towards support for their mission to help people impacted and displaced by flooding from Hurricane Irene. A team of 10-15 folks from Arts Bus, including Rob Fish of Vermont Digital Economy Project, employed Wordpress to build and design a website with better outreach and focus.

"It’s the largest team we’ve had yet at a local hackathon," said Fish. "Everyone is learning and feeling like they are giving back, and that’s want counts." Fish has helped volunteers build 15 websites since last June. And they don’t just build and forget. Through the efforts of the Vermont Digital Economy Project, they provide a visual guide on how to manage the website and provide continual support for the non-profits.

More details about these projects can be found on the Code for Burlington website.

What a hackathon can really accomplish

When it’s all said and done, it’s really about community partnerships.

"The big thing we are focusing on now is building connections between civic hackers and civic organizations," said Code for Burlington brigade captain Bradley Holt. "We want to build long-term, sustainable relationships that last after an event."

The Code for Burlington brigade is transforming their community, one hackathon, one app, and one meeting at a time. Government is a slow moving entity and resistant to change. But these actions are having a positive influence on the overall community, not just the government side.

The Burlington brigade hosts monthly hackathon meetups with a big event every four months. They are getting ready to partner with the City of Burlington to host weekly office hours at City Hall. The office hours will focus less on coding and more conversations. It’s an opportunity for city department to come in and talk about their needs, challenges, and successes. The office hours could help cross-pollinate ideas between departments and be a place for conversations to happen.

I like that idea of hosting office hours so much that I might try something similar in Raleigh. After all, building on others ideas and improving them is the open source way.

Jason Hibbets
Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.

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