HACKING AWAY: At the Princeton Public Library, on June 6 and 7, the first Code for Princeton Civic Hackathon will use technology to help come up with new ideas and solutions for the town, and maybe beyond. A brainstorming session preceding the Hackathon takes place this Sunday, May 31, at the library.
You don’t have to be a technology expert to take part in the Code for Princeton Civic Hackathon at Princeton Public Library June 6 and 7. All are welcome — even technophobes. You just have to be interested in building solutions for the local community.
“We’re using technology to help us address some of our problems,” says Mayor Liz Lempert, who has been enthusiastically plugging the event in recent weeks. “The idea is to get a new perspective on some of the issues we face as a municipality and are grappling with as a community. We’re looking at the issues through a different lens, bringing in residents who might not be typically engaged. This is a way to get some fresh eyes on some issues.”
The two-day event is part of the June 6 National Day of Civic Hacking, organized by Code for America. Princeton’s Hackathon is a collaboration between Code for Princeton, the Municipality of Princeton, and the library. Using publicly released data, technology, and design processes, participants will collaborate on projects in areas including renewable and sustainable energy, politics and elections, volunteerism and civic participation, environmental and geospatial data, and cycling and transportation.
“It has been held in many other cities,” said Ms. Lempert, who will hold a pre-Hackathon brainstorming session this Sunday at the library from 3-4 p.m. “It’s really a fun, community event. We’ve all been doing some prep work. On our end, we’re putting together big data sets in a format that people can use. The idea is that these would be posted online for people to use during the Hackathon, and afterwards. It’s part of our effort to be more open and transparent, not just sharing information but doing it in a way that’s going to be usable.”
Everyone is welcome at the Hackathon, but space is limited. The event begins at noon on Saturday, June 6 with a coffee hour and team formation. Following a keynote address by Major League Hacking Chief Executive Officer Mike Swift, Ms. Lempert will officially kick off the session, which continues through midnight. Hacking will resume at 8 a.m. Sunday with submissions due by 11 a.m.
Also planned for Saturday are programming classes for children. My Robotic Friends is for grades 1-5 at 1:30 p.m., and Scratch Programming is geared to grades 6-8 at 3 p.m. There will be space for hardware aficianados. For updates on workshops, speakers, and other events, visit codeforprinceton.org.
The brainstorming session this Sunday, May 31 is designed to discover what problems people want programmers and hackers to work on during the following weekend’s event. “Some might relate to the data sets we’ve put together, and some to sets we’ll still need to put together,” Ms. -Lempert said. “Depending on what the information is, we might be able to scramble and get something up and running for use during the Hackathon. Or it might just be a good idea we’ll work on.”
University professors, high school students, and other computer buffs are excited about the event. “In an ideal situation, we end up with an idea for an app that could be really great not just for Princeton, but for other towns around the country,” Ms. Lempert said. “In coming months, we can look into potentially developing it. But even if we don’t get a usable product, just having lots of residents engage with this data and come together can lead to ideas and solutions and to new perspectives”
Sponsors are hoping the Hackathon will be the first of more to be held in the future. Originally, the event was planned for April, but it coincided with one that Princeton University was holding. “It has generated a lot of excitement,” Ms. Lempert said. “One of the things I love about it is that it has already brought new people to the table who hadn’t been involved in the past.”
There will be prizes awarded for notable efforts — nothing fancy, though. “When hackathons first started, they would attract people to participate by offering big prizes,” Ms. Lempert said. “But fortunately for us, people seem to be moving away from that. It’s more for the camaraderie and the community. So I might take some of the winning teams out for ice cream.”