San Francisco Hackers Work With The City To Make It Run Smoother

The Summer of Smart hackathon resulted in several sites and apps that can make transportation or food shopping easier. And the city is embracing them.

Think of a hackathon and you probably imagine a bunch of geeks huddled around a table, toiling away at code that may eventually win prizes--before it gets forgotten at the end of the event. And you're probably right. Not so with the Gray Area Foundation For The Arts (GAFFTA) Summer of Smart, a series of three hackathons this past summer that brought together artists, community activists, developers, urban planners, and more to work on projects that address San Francisco's biggest issues. This week, the four winning Summer of Smart teams will present their projects to the city's mayoral candidates at a forum, marking the first time in political history that hackathon teams will offer up their projects to candidates during the course of an election.

"We wanted a direct dialogue between hackathon teams and the political class who has never been to hackathons before, who never have had a window into what the community looks like," says Jake Levitas, research director at GAFFTA.

The four winning projects are: PublicArtSpaces, a matchmaking site for artists and underused spaces; GOODbuildings, a site that aggregates green building information across a number of indicators in the city, ie LEED certification; SMART Muni, an iPad app that acts as a trouble ticket system for the Muni transportation system; and Market Guardians, a smartphone app that allows users to report healthy food availability in local stores.

Most of the projects teams are already working with city officials. For example, the Muni team is in discussion with the transportation agency, and the Market Guardians team has been talking to the Department of Public Health. During this week's mayoral forum, the teams will also present their ideas to candidates. A moderated discussion about the ideas (and associated city issues) will follow after each presentation.

The hackathon teams won't stop working after the mayoral event--they will instead become part of a new civic residency program at GAFFTA that will provide them with a space to work, guidance, and connections. So where other hackathons leave participants with a pile of cash and some kudos, Summer of Smart is actually teams helping build out their projects and make the city a better place to live. "It's an incubator for civic innovation," says Levitas.

The mayoral forum isn't just a way to get city officials excited about the potential of hackathons and hackers; it's also a method to get citizens excited about talking to the government.

"It used to be that you could vote or pay your taxes or complain but you start running out of gestures," says Peter Hirshberg, board chairman at GAFFTA. "At a time when there's a certain ire towards government across our nation, this is a hopeful way of engaging in a new way."

[Images: Summer of Smart]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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