Maine Civic Hackathon Plows Through Data

As the smell of solder wafted in the air from hardware and software techies working together, the first annual Maine Civic Hackday, a local hackathon that was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking got underway in Bangor, Maine. Held June 1 and 2, it marked the beginning of what promises to be a global sea change in putting government data to a wide variety of uses, using APIs. One of 95 events held simultaneously across the country, Bangor's hackathon was organized by Programmableweb's own Garret Wilkin.

Projects included tracking city vehicles, analyzing car crash data, and creating a prototype for an exhibit at the Children's Discovery Museum that  children could control with a laptop or cell phone.

A proclamation of support from the Bangor City Council was used as a template for blessings by governments holding events in other cities. Government backing served as a reminder that a lot is at stake in putting to use what governments have most: data.

Among the 25 participants, Derick Slopey Chris Roberts, Nate Welch and others worked on one project that could be of critical importance to the city--and to all cities dependent on snow plows. Using the Google Maps API, they created a program to track plow trucks, with the idea that, during a snow storm, residents and the city government will be able to see which roads have been plowed recently, potentially smoothing out harrowing commutes.

Meanwhile, the hardware crew in the group tricked out an arduino with two shields to grab GPS data and Feed it through a cell phone, with an eye toward later being able to transmit other data. This will include whether the truck has been sanding, when it was actually plowing (as opposed to just traveling to the start of its plow route).

The hardware creators took the tracking device for a test drive around the city, broadcasting so the software team could record results. (See graphic.)

Meanwhile, a second group that included Trevor Metivier, Yuval Boss and Ryan Toth, worked with Bangor traffic data and the Google Maps API to display the number and frequency of crashes at intersections throughout the city. On Sunday, just prior to presentation time they were in the process of building an API that would  use the Google Maps API and incorporate data through the Yahoo weather API to start discerning what if any role weather played in the crashes. The aim is simple: take the dent out of the universe.

Both groups faced different versions of the same problem: the data was already there, but not in a very useful form. With the crash data, the city has years of information, but much of it is stored in computers that are no longer in use or stored on paper. In the case of the plow trucks, the city does not collect data in real  time but only downloads it when trucks stop for refueling. Worse, the system is 13 years old, and can't actually output the data in a usable format.

But in a move that illustrates what is possible, Welch noted that a vendor had offered a new system for $20,000 to outfit 100 trucks. The hackers estimated their version could cover the fleet for $3,000. Even adding in the cost of a plan to cover the transmission of data through the cellular network, the hackers' proposal represents a potentially huge cost savings.

In being the lead instigator for the event, Wilkin sees a connection between civic hackathons like this one and student internships in tech. His aim is a revolution in tech education in Maine. The change may already be under way. Of the 25 plus hackers, two of them were high school students, junior Ryan Toth and senior Yuval Boss, mentioned earlier.

Toth told Programmableweb that in rural Maine, building tech community is key. He plays a role as a tech person at his high school and holds down a tech job while being a student. Toth is entirely self-taught, something he is proud of. Yet he is quick to point out the drawbacks. He needs to be working with people he can learn from. The hackathon was a great opportunity to network, look at problem sets and dig in--together.

This seems set to continue well past the actual event. Problem sets the group is working on will form the agenda for the foreseeable future, long after the hackathon concluded.

Be sure to read the next Government article: CivOmega Wants Your Open Data APIs To Help Fuel Search Engine