Technically, it was a hackathon. A passel of programmers converged for a 48-hour marathon coding session to develop and launch a new collection of apps. Yet what’s standard fare for the technorati of Silicon Valley was a little more challenging for software developers in the Big Easy. For starters, the very name struck a discordant note.
"I had to go through every person on the Superbowl Host Committee and explain that we weren’t trying to hack the Superbowl servers," says Travis Laurendine. As founder of Volnado, a NOLA-based startup that developed an API for musicians to interact with tech companies, Laurendine was well-versed in the innovative virtues of spending sleepless nights with a team of focused engineers. So he thought it would be the perfect approach to solving the types of pesky problems that arose for visitors to Indianapolis during the last Super Bowl, like how to find the nearest restaurant without a 2-hour wait for a table.
New Orleans is no stranger to sports events. The Superdome —once the refuge for victims of Hurricane Katrina— got a multi-million dollar makeover in 2011, just in time to host Super Bowl XLVII. It's the tenth time the game will be played in the Crescent City and the first since the disaster.
But talk about timing. The city is expecting to welcome an estimated 150,000 additional fans smack in the middle of NOLA’s signature two-week event, Mardi Gras. According to professional services firm PwC US, the Super Bowl alone will generate $185 million in direct visitor spending on things like lodging, transportation, food, and—you guessed it—beverages.
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau points out that there will be other free events such as games for kids at the convention center and a river front jazz and heritage festival timed to coincide with the game, adding yet another layer of entertainment options for visitors. "All of these events are part of what we call ‘company is coming,’" Perry says, adding that city is more than ready.
Since 2005 and subsequent disasters such as the BP oil spill and an economic recession, New Orleans still managed to add more than 500 restaurants and saw tourism dollars soar to a record $5.47 billion in 2011. Tax credits to small businesses have lured entrepreneurs, film tax credits have made NOLA "Hollywood South," and Perry says that programmers and developers have contributed to a thriving tech scene supported by incubators such as Idea Village and the Louisiana Tech Council.
Perry says the CVB and other organizations have come a long way from using banner ads and PR events to lure visitors in the aftermath of Katrina. "We had a photo of family standing in front of shark tank at the aquarium with the tag line "Just for the record, this is the only part of the city still under water,’" Perry recalls with a laugh. Now Twitter and Facebook are regular parts of the digital toolkit. Even the mayor has tasked residents to tweet their favorite places (#BestOfNOLA) during the Super Bowl to show visitors the best local hotspots; volunteers will provide answers to any question tweeted @nolasuperbowl. Nawlins Cab launched an app to make it easier to hail a taxi no matter what street you’re on.
This was the first time anyone held a hackathon to solve the problems specifically for a sporting event. Getting all the local officials on board meant the event had to be renamed Codemkrs Super Challenge and liberally splashed with New Orleanian flair.
To sweeten the pot for this disparate group of over 60 developers, Laurendine secured prizes for the winning teams such as tickets to Bonnaroo, gift certificates to restaurants, and even tickets to the Superbowl. Seats at the game were eventually taken off the prize roster, according to Laurendine, partly due to regulations. But also because, "These are nerds. They don’t care about sports, they care about showing off what they can do [with technology]." As a self-professed "party planner for this big nerd party," Laurendine was also tasked with making sure everyone was caffeinated and well-fed. So the likes of local eateries Cafe du Monde, Naked Pizza, and Ste. Marie kept the dishes coming. Laurendine says his own father came in to cook Jambalaya (with a little help from Zatarain’s Cajun Foods).
And because nothing in New Orleans is done without musical accompaniment, Laurendine pulled in several bands to pump up the programming. One of those bands acted as the beta test for an app called Digital Tip Jar. "Cattywompus played for 20 minutes on the night of the home stretch," Laurendine says, "Digital Tip Jar had just finished and they went live with that band getting tips right from the event." In a couple of weeks, word of Digital Tip Jar spread to another music hub: Austin, Texas where the app will also be used. That was the main goal for Laurendine. "We want these to be viable businesses long after the Super Bowl."
As such, the app with the most users over the course of the event will have a chance to pitch to a host of celebrity and angel investors at a new competition called Whale Tank held Monday after the big game. He points out that New Orleans has played host to the likes of Paul Allen, Lil Wayne, Beyonce and Jay Z and a cadre of sports figures who’ve made significant investments in tech startups. This is their chance to make money on a new venture as well as come back to the city several times a year to check on their investment, Laurendine contends.
From there, both the hackathon and the Whale Tank hit the road. "New Orleans is the trial run for New York next year," Laurendine says. Laissez les bons temps rouler.
If you plan on hitting up the Big Easy for the Super Bowl or Mardi Gras, here are the prize-winning apps to try:
EatNowNola: A location-based app that will display the restaurants closest to you ordered by distance. Data pulled directly from the establishments and the diners will tell you how long you need to wait before tucking into that po’boy or Creole gumbo.
Gigs Guru: Helps live music fans discover shows and concerts listed by date and time. The map function shows you exactly how to get there and related links take you to musicians’ web pages.
Digital Tip Jar: You guessed it. If you see a street musician you love but are carrying nothing but plastic, sign in and send them some swag. You don’t even have to tell them who you are.
NOLA Parks: Grabbing data provided by the City of New Orleans, the app identified the locations and amenities of over 200 parks and playgrounds around the city. It will also point out available parking.