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Tampa Hackathon: Citizen Solvers Code For A Cause

The first floor ballroom at Tampa's Downtown Hyatt Regency is peculiarly calm given the amount of processing power -- human and hardware -- plugged in and operating at a high-level.

The creative chaos that typifies your average Startup Weekend is absent, and the hipster-approved combination of kegs, amp stacks and dub-infused coder anthems that fuel round-the-clock computer programming at South by SouthWest is nowhere to be found.

This hack-a-thon is different. This is Mayor Bob Buckhorn's turf, and these participants are coding for a cause: Tampa.

Instigated by local startup veteran, technologist and Gazelle Lab co-founder Marvin Scaff, and advised and operationalized by local IT veteran Brian Burridge, Buckhorn and his team set out to engage the local tech talent with a specific challenge: Build an app that improves the experience of Tampa Bay -- oh yeah, and make sure it's complete in 48 hours. No pressure, really.

Why is this important? According to Scaff: "It's encouraging to see the hacker community working with government to make the city's data more accessible and useful to citizens; it's a good use of people's time.''

A pitter-patter of keystrokes fills the room, and it's quite obvious that these folks are programming with purpose. The 75 or so hackers on-site June 22-24 at the downtown Hyatt are here for many reasons: Some code to sharpen and showcase their chops; some to meet other coders; some code for country -- well, at least county and city -- in the name of geek pride. For Florida, this is a milestone: the first major civic hackathon to take place in the Sunshine State!

Empty cases of Red Bull are neatly stacked behind the desk of Siobahn Harley, special assistant to the mayor, as she artfully responds to the slow but steady flow of tech-curious onlookers and media reps. And in an expression of caffeinated solidarity, even Buckhorn gets in on the action, downing an energy-drink and cheering the creativity in the room.

The official criteria of the hackathon includes (full description here):

    •    Usefulness: Addresses a real need.
    •    Design: Be mindful of visitors who may be unfamiliar with Tampa.
    •    User Experience: Appearance & usability.
    •    Originality: Unique and inventive.


Community Leadership

Buckhorn isn't the only political presence on site. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe also shares words of inspiration and affirmation. Rumor already has it that there may be another event organized at the county level that taps into the citizen solver, geek power the Tampa Bay region has to offer.

Burridge sees the coordination and connection between IT workers as a particularly powerful outcome of this kind of event. It's not really about the code. Sure, what the teams imagine and create in 48 hours is impressive and cool -- and there's a chance that a government agency just might integrate the app into its operations.

At the same time, this is capacity building at its finest. These participants are more connected to each other now and are:
1) more likely to collaborate on a tech/entrepreneurship project in the future;
2) more skilled at their craft after this digital workout; and
3) more connected to the technology ecosystem and community in which they live. No matter how you slice it, it's a win.

On the topic of winning: The judges require that code be submitted to GitHub by 6 p.m. Sunday, and request a few days to kick the tires on the submitted apps before awarding a winner.

The Judges:

Steve Ressler: Founder of GovLoop;
Kevin Hale: Co-founder of WuFoo (acquired by Survey Monkey);
Josh Greenberg: Co-founder of Grooveshark;
Alfred Goldberg: Father figure of mobile in the TB region and founder of Absolute Mobile Solutions;
Brian Burridge: Task master extraordinaire and partner and sr. technologist, Gauged2;
Marvin Scaff: Self-taught programming guru and entrepreneurial ecosystem advocate, and founder at Gazelle Lab;
Linda Olson: Founder and chairperson at Tampa Bay WaVE;
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The Power Of Raw Data

People who make things generally require some raw materials; this hackathon is no different. In addition to the geek tool kit (laptops, over-sized monitors, external hard drives, noise-cancelling headphones, ironic T-shirts, snacks and energy drinks, etc.), participants are using city-provided data to help inform their ideation and decision-making around what to build, how to build it, and how to make it easy for people to use. Everything from general accounting information, departmental budgets, construction bid information, calendars, crime statistics, demographic information, housing data, transit schedules, parks data, permitting information, police, purchasing, school, traffic, utility, and water data. Plenty of choices.

Justin Davis, Madera Labs founder and user experience design expert, understands that coming up with user-centric product and service ideas is hard enough, so having a bank of data as a starting point to generate ideas is a big help. "It makes the process easier; it's a scratch on the canvas, a way to kick start the creative process, and I think that's really cool.''

The Results

In an email follow-up to the participants, Harley congratulated all of the teams on their efforts: "... every app met a need and you may find city departments or other agencies contacting you in the near future to further discuss how your application can be implemented. Everyone submitted something useful or unique. I was glad that I wasn't a judge!”

True as that may be, everyone loves a winner.
 
Grand Prize: HARTxt by SPARKTECH -- SPARKTECH created an SMS system that allows bus passengers to text their location ID and bus number (both already provided at the stop) and receive an automatic response containing the next three times that their bus will arrive. It is also available in Spanish and is blind accessible.

Runner Up: Pix and Pans by Team Haneke Design -- Pix and Pans allows mobile users to submit photos of what they like most and least about Tampa. The solution consists of a web application and an iPhone app. This application fits the needs of the city's InVision Tampa downtown master plan process. City officials look forward to potentially using it as both inspiration and a tool to improve the City.
 
Mayor's Choice: 1. SimTampa by Michael Lindemuth -- SimTampa has immediate use for Tampa's economic development team. SimTampa is a tool that allows users to search for available properties, view them via Goodle street view and retrieve relevant details from the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. Citizens can also suggest uses for available spaces.
2. City Site by Robin Curts -- The City of Tampa already makes extensive use of QR codes. Curts builds on this with his City Site app. This app allows users to access city information easily on their mobile phone by scanning QR codes strategically placed around the city. He built a feature that could allow citizens to scan the side of a park pavilion, view available dates, and book it right there on the device. The app makes great use of the large number of city feeds available and gives users direct access to what's happening at their current location.
 
Unscientific Points Of Interest

* 4 of 9 teams entered the competition with an idea of what they wanted to build in mind already. They ended up being the 1st and 2nd prize winners, and both of the Mayor’s Choice award winners.

* 4 of the 4 placing teams had personally experienced the problem they were trying to solve first hand.

* 3 of the 4 placing teams did either primary or secondary research to validate the concept before and/or during their build, to ensure they were building something other people would find useful.

* 2 of the 4 placing teams significantly deviated from their original idea twice; in entrepreneurial terms, they "pivoted'' based on feedback.

* As is commonly the case with events like this: They don't happen without sponsors; show 'em some love!

Nathan Schwagler teaches creativity in entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is responsible for the integration of creative thinking skills into entrepreneurship curricula. A graduate of SUNY Buffalo, he earned master's degrees there and at USF. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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