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Hacking The Big Apple

When is a city like a startup? Last weekend, the City of New York hosted a hackathon to re-envision its website, NYC.gov. Here’s what geeks from Manhattan, NY, to Manhattan, Kansas, had to say about how a gov site should serve its citizens.

Hacking The Big Apple

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On Sunday evening, in Manhattan, a young man named Noel Hidalgo stood in front of a panel of judges, including four from the City of New York, to tell them just what he thought of the city’s website. “Search is broken on NYC.gov,” he said. Then he pulled up a slide of an iconic fruit associated with the city, to illustrate his point. “We have a rotten apple.”

Hidalgo was representing “Team Appleseed,” one of 14 teams that had organized themselves over the weekend for the Reinvent NYC.gov Hackathon at General Assembly, the New York entrepreneurial hub. General Assembly and the city, represented by its newly minted Chief Digital Officer, Rachel Sterne, had invited minds from the worlds of technology and design for the event, which had kicked off on Saturday morning. By Sunday evening–after a late night (many stayed till 1 a.m.) and an early morning (and gotten to work that morning by 7)–it was time for the teams to present their ideas.

As Sterne had said to the room before the presentations began, Central Park (the physical place) receives 35 million unique visitors per year–and NYC.gov receives almost as many uniques. “We have to take care of our digital public spaces” with the same care as our physical ones, she said. The groups were mostly made up of New Yorkers themselves, though some had come from as far as Canada (and one group came, cutely, from Manhattan, Kansas, known as the “Little Apple”). And they had ideas both big and little–sometimes presented as mock-ups, sometimes as very basic, workable hacks. Several groups wanted to turn NYC.gov into a question-and-answer site, somewhat like Quora, enabling citizens to help answer each other’s questions (delivering obvious savings to the city). One group proposed, inevitably, a gamification element, wherein good citizens could earn points for their good citizenship. (“You reported a downed tree! Thanks! You receive 50 NYC points!”)

One group presented a widget that, relying on a half-billion trips worth of taxi data, could finally give accurate predictions of how long it’d take you to get from one part of Manhattan to another in a taxi at rush hour. (As New Yorkers know, Google Maps often shows irrational exuberance when it comes to ETAs on cross-town trips.) Another strong presentation imagined an app that let you as a citizen vote on pending legislation, boosting civic engagmenet and serving as a quick metric by which representatives could gauge public opinion.

After each presentation, the panel of judges (including New York City officials as well as higher-ups at several startups) patiently asked questions. These were typically technical questions, though on one occasion, Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, calmly asked a presenter to go back a few slides. He pointed to an image of a skyline running along the top of the presenter’s mock-up.

“Is that a real skyline?” asked Heiferman coolly.

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It was an amalgam of skylines, admitted the presenter, including those of Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

“We’d like you to leave right now,” said Heiferman, pointing to the door. Then he slapped the judge’s table and stood up, calling out in mock outrage, “You come up here and give us a fucking Philly skyline?”

With the presentations over, the judges retired into a back room to deliberate, while participants and observers flocked to the bar to fish bottles of beer from silver ice buckets. After a while, Sterne emerged to present the awards: Best User Interface went to Team Appleseed; Best Use of Social, to a group called @NYC; Best Use of Location, to NYC.gov Local Filtering; Most Innovative, to AskNYC.gov; and Judge’s Choice to MyNYC.gov. (Inset here, a member of the @NYC team shows off his trophy, which inexplicably featured two figures locked in a heated arm-wrestling match.)

As the participants filed out, a lingering question remained: Would innovation ever find its place in the staid and stately rooms of City Hall? The world of startups (goes the stereotype) is sleek, sexy, stylish, and energetic. The same images can hardly be said to apply to city government. As the New York Times observed in its recent profile of Sterne, “When she proposed hosting a ‘hackathon,’ a meeting of programmers, to solicit ideas for redesigning the city’s Web site … she had to explain to colleagues that it would not pose a security threat.”

In reality, Sterne told Fast Company, she had been consistently surprised by the innovative spirit she had found in government since joining it from the private sector in January. The point of the event, she said, was in part to get creative minds from the private sector interested in the possibilities of government. In that, whether or not the city uses any of the ideas worked up at General Assembly over the weekend (and it has no obligation to do so), the event succeeded. Said Raven Keller, a user-experience expert who had donated a weekend of her time, “I thought it was pretty exciting. It’s possible for things to change.”

[Image: Flickr user eherrera]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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