Monday, July 29, 2013

A Better Tucson Through Coding

Posted By on Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 11:00 AM

At 8:55 am Saturday morning Gangplank was very quiet, with only a few people enjoying a breakfast of bagels donated by Bruegger's Bagels. Then 9 am rolled around and enthusiastic citizens began pouring through the doors. It was good to see a fair number of women among the majority of male participants, and a great range of ages were in attendance. People stood in small groups holding mugs of coffee provided by Ike's, catching up with those they knew and making new contacts as they waited for everyone to sign in. It was a comfortable affair, which is to be expected from a group of people who work late into the night and don't often get up before noon.

Several contributors had a background in programming, from UofA students ready to graduate to those working in the private business sector. “I've been hoping Tucson was going to do something like this,” said Jeanine Burton, who was a programmer before she retired and has been looking to get involved in the community again. Some people hoped to lend their skills in other areas — like communications - or were just generally interested in getting involved. And businesses and organizations from all over the city made an appearance, including Maker House, local volunteer groups, and City and County employees. “The City needs to be involved in the community,” said Mark Taylor, Tucson's IT Manager.

Project pitches started with a welcome from Code for Tucson organizers Dan Stormont of the Pineapple Project and Justin Williams of Startup Tucson. They were excited about the size of the turnout, and reiterated that their goal was to continue to work on the projects past the weekend. “Ideas get better because we work on them together,” said Williams. “We're going to inspire each other.”

Andrew Greenhill was asked to speak. He explained that he started getting involved in civic collaboration when he realized that the process of reporting and fixing pot holes around town could be better. “Pot holes are the gateway drug for civic engagement,” says Greenhill. He also explained that the model of Teach for America, a program that recruits teachers to provide education in low-income communities, was part of the inspiration for Code for America. “How do we get people more involved in government,” asked Greenhill. Code for America was the answer.

Then an amazing array of projects were pitched (14 in all), and the excitement grew. The crowd cheered each new idea, some of which included improving the way you plan a trip on the Suntran website, bringing local volunteers and City projects together, finding parade routes that bypass the new streetcar line, and building a hyper-local Wikipedia site for Tucson. City and County officials were introduced and links to online data sets were provided.

Project leaders gathered their teams, made camp where they could find space, and the work began. With all the enthusiasm and camaraderie, it was easy to forget that this was a competition. Local businesses including Proper, Sawmill Run and Saguaro Corners sponsored gift cards for the occasion. Big prizes included hacker-worthy gifts from OpenTucson, MakerHouse, and Gangplank. Even Code for America and O'Reilly donated to the cause.
Local food and drink fueled participants throughout the weekend. There was lasagna from Epic Cafe to munch on and pizza from Magpie's. Thunder Canyon Brewery brought over a couple of pony kegs in the afternoon and The Hopyard provided sandwiches the next day. It was an energetic blend of late nights studying at the library and a party, and those that only meant to stop in for a moment became involved in a project and stayed for several hours. Then they came back the next day.

Only a few coders stayed at Gangplank the entire 24 hours, but on Sunday morning everyone returned to finish up projects and polish presentations. There was still a sense of community in the air and more than one person expressed their satisfaction with the weekend's work. “I almost didn't make it,” said Roey Chasman, a young programmer at the U of A. “Now I'm really glad I showed up.”

The presentations were impressive, showing that a lot of work can be accomplished enough drive and a group of impassioned people. Andrew Greenhill, Linda Samuels from Sustainable City Project, and Andrew Lenards, a software engineer involved in Gangplank, judged the projects. They were incredibly pleased with the quality of work. Grand prize winners included My Bill/My Impact, an app that allows you to track your own utility use and its impact on the community, Happy Food Tucson, an app to get still-edible food no longer deemed “quality” by grocery stores into the hands of food banks and people in need, and Tucson API, which makes City data more accessible to software developers and allows them to add their own gathered information to the collection.

Teams stuck around after prizes were awarded, continuing to socialize and making plans for future meetings. A sense of community had been built in this one weekend. “This is as much about building apps as it is about building communities,” said Greenhill. “This is the future of how our cities and government will reform.”

Keep an eye out on the event's website for an update about the projects made during the Code for Tucson event. And if you have an idea that you want to share, or want to get involved, you can attend Gangplank's Open Hacknight held every Wednesday night from 6-8pm.

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