Do you have an idea for a new way to use available information for the public good? There could be an app for that. On Friday, October 10, Anchorage residents with ideas for “hacking” public data pitched ideas to volunteer coders and designers at Alaska’s 5th hAKathon event.
For some people, “hacker” might conjure up an image of a ’90s era Angelina Jolie in a biker jacket gleefully typing the good fight against corporate bad guys. A more recent iteration of the term can be found on sites like Lifehacker or aggregation hubs like Pinterest, where one can browse through tips and tricks on everything from improving your laptop’s lifespan to creative uses for empty paper towel rolls.
The Alaska hAKathon (see what they did there?) is probably closer to the latter than the former. According to volunteer planning committee member (and occasional Alaska Commons contributor) Alicia Busick, “a hackathon is a community event where people with technical and development skills come together within the community and work together to find solutions for data problems and needs.”
In application, the hackathon acts as a vetting process and incubator for ideas aimed at improving the use of data within a community. An example of one of the previous Alaska hAKathon ideas that has come to fruition is the InfoPoint bus-tracking app that works with Google Maps for Anchorage’s municipal transit system. “We had some volunteer coders map out the dates and times of the actual routes and then plug in some of the numbers for the Google map,” Busick explained. “It’s really nice, especially if you have appointments and you need to get to a place by a certain time; it will show you the routes to the pick up and drop off points and how far you actually have to walk from the stop.”
Friday’s event at The Boardroom in downtown Anchorage was the opening act for the full hackathon, allowing individuals five minutes each to pitch one or multiple ideas to the assembled volunteer innovators. Participants were recorded so that their idea could be viewed remotely and afterward. Those not able to attend on Friday are permitted to upload a video of themselves making their pitch to the Alaska Hackathon website. If the idea is considered viable, the person with the original idea will work with a self-selected team of volunteers to work out the logistics at the hackathon the following weekend. The team will put together a presentation to help determine if the idea has enough merit to move forward into production.
Attendees’ presentations varied in scope and comfort level.
Brendan Babb from Coding for America pitched a project to make an interactive map where Anchorage residents could find available flu shot locations. Another idea was for an app that would help those called up for jury duty keep track of whether their group was called up. His other ideas included making a better local trail map, feeding information about adoptable pets from Friends of Pets to a twitter bot (already running as @CutePetsANC but seeking improvement), and a way to easily check your food stamp balance through text message.
Dale Sheldon-Hess (another occasional Alaska Commons contributor) spoke on behalf of the Center for Election Science and asked for help with coding an embedded plugin for collecting contact information for people interested in approval voting.
Hilary Morgan spoke on behalf of the YWCA Alaska’s Women of Achievement Program. The program honors around 10 women a year for demonstrating leadership and contributing to the larger community. Morgan’s pitch is to create an app that would connect previous Women of Achievement honorees with young women seeking advice. It would essentially act as a virtual meet-up for the advisees and advisers, while still protecting private contact information. Advisers would list topics they are fluent in and advisees would be apply to use the program by listing topics they’re interested in, and the program would help match them up for an advising session.
Shane Spencer made a pitch for Boop! – an app that would make it easy to report short-lived warnings anonymously. The warnings would be available to the public, including governmental departments. Do you see two moose blocking a bike trail, or notice a long line at the grocery store you want to warn people about? Boop! it. The idea is to create an easy-to-use way for people to warn others about a situation you find concerning or of interest.
Lance Ahern pitched an election auto sms system, which would create push notifications for people who want to follow election results for particular political races on election day.
Mark Barrett pitched a project called Interactive Stack, a web application to teach “exploit development and reverse engineering” of computer programs. It would teach coding in a visual way, in order to demonstrate it more easily in a tutorial.
Matt Dupre has an idea to improve upon the concept of presentation software like reveal.js. Taking inspiration from data visualization program d3.js, Dupre wants to adapt a more data-visualization-friendly version of reveal.js. (If you’re not familiar with these programs, watch the video to observe the differences.)
Geoff Wright spoke on behalf of Learn2Code, a self-directed coding class that allows students to learn at their own pace. Wright asked for feedback from coders on improving the program.
Though the group of attendees was relatively small, the energy in the room was palpable. These people are interested in taking good ideas and making them a reality. This bodes well for future hackathons and innovations in the last frontier, or at least for the level of interest in the event this weekend.
The 5th Alaska hAKathon runs from October 18-19 at The Boardroom, starting at 10 a.m. More information can be found at the Alaska Hackathon website.