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Field Notes From the FCC's First-Ever Hack Day

FCC Open Dev Day

When you think of the Federal Communications Commission, you probably think of telco regulations, indecency fines, and net neutrality—not civic hacking. But the FCC wants to change that. On Monday, over 100 developers converged at FCC headquarters for a 9-hour collaborative hack day, with the goal of making software that employs the APIs and datasets the FCC makes available to the public.

The main meeting room, which usually has chairs lined up facing the dais for hearings, was set up with small tables equipped with power strips, Starburst and Snickers bars for Open Developer Day. There was a live video stream, and attendees and viewers were encouraged to tag their tweet #fccdevday. From the podium, Chief Data Officer Greg Elin said, "I've never looked out into this room and seen it filled with developers. This is a first for the FCC."

Three new apps were created out of the event.

The first webapp uses the FCC's Broadband Speed Test API and HTML5's browser-based location feature. It detects where you are located in the US, and displays wireless and wireline maximum and average upload and download speed there.

The second was an iPhone app which uses the FCC's FRN Conversions API. Enter a state, and the app returns a list of broadband providers in the area, as well as broadband speed test results.

The last creation combined MapBox, and open source mapping API, and Google Analytics to generate a map of visitors to a web site.

Making tech accessible to people with disabilities was the primary focus of the day, both the FCC's Accessibility and Innovation Initiative and Yahoo's Accessibility Lab had a strong presence. An Apps4Android demonstration showed off mobile apps which offer gesture-based navigation and screen readers. Yahoo! developers gave a presentation on making accessible webapps that are screen reader-friendly, as well as their tools for interacting with web APIs like the FCC's. You can find out more from the wiki that was created for participants.

While the event yielded fewer "hacks" than other similar ones I've attended, Open Developer Day was still a success. That's because it was marked a new direction for the FCC, which opened its doors to coders and began building a community of civic hackers around its resources.

Gina Trapani is still thinking of ways to use the broadband speed test API. Follow @ginatrapani on Twitter.