#Hack4detroit Seeks to Improve City Services Through Open Data Portal

We started the week out talking about hackathons in Detroit, and we’ll finish the week the same way, although #hack4detroit has a twist: Participants are using the city of Detroit’s open data portal to create apps that will benefit city residents or help streamline operations.

Automation Alley’s #hack4detroit event starts at 7 p.m. tonight at Grand Circus downtown. At stake is a $5,000 grand prize; the apps will be judged by Beth Niblock, chief information officer for the city of Detroit; Sean Hurwitz, CEO of Pixo; Brian Balasia, CEO of Digerati; and Will McDowell, business analyst at Detroit Labs.

“We’re really excited to be working with Automation Alley again this year,” said Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit’s deputy technology director for community engagement. “We’re trying to change the perception and reality of what it means to partner with the city of Detroit.”

Last year’s #hack4detroit event (called #hackDPL) produced an app created by two Detroit Venture Partners interns that allows Detroit Public Library patrons to pay fines from their phones and get alerts about upcoming library events, plus it translates voicemails left for librarians into text messages to make them easier to respond to.

Gilchrist thinks this year’s event will be even more productive thanks to the February opening of the city’s data portal, where hackathon participants will be able, through an API, to access information that used to require a Freedom of Information Act request. For instance, if someone was interested in creating an app that had to do with public safety, they could find all reported crimes in the city since 2011 by accessing the city’s data portal.

“This event is an opportunity to utilize this asset, which keeps growing,” Gilchrist said. “We’re really excited about unleashing its power.”

Since Niblock came on board last year as the city’s CIO, a lot has changed, he said. For many years, Detroit’s city government lagged behind most other municipalities of its size in terms of having a certain portion of city services accessible online. A lot of departments have now come online, and he said Niblock has been clear that an open and transparent city government is her priority.

“Along with transparency, we have enabled better information sharing across city departments,” Gilchrist said. “What used to take a formal request we can now pull up on a smartphone. The ultimate goal is to make smart, data-driven decisions for the city.”

Gilchrist said the city is also working with Data Driven Detroit this summer to teach community organizations how to use the open data portal to get a picture of Detroit and its current problems. “We’re doing events in the neighborhoods to showcase our data and make sure it’s reflective of what the community is experiencing,” he said.

In April, the city released the Improve Detroit app, which allows city residents to report potholes, illegal dumping, missing manhole covers, abandoned vehicles, and other problems. “This weekend’s hackathon and the Improve Detroit app are all in the same vein, which is to have a deeper, more personal engagement with city hall,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist, who is a native Detroiter that left town for college, a job at Microsoft, and a detour into politics that led to him serving as national campaign director for MoveOn.org before accepting a job with the city, said he sees some of the larger implications of having a growing tech scene in Detroit.

“An innovation economy is not a new thing here—lots of people are doing creative work in and around Detroit and have been for a long time,” he said. “The Web-based startups located downtown are recent and interesting, but I’m much more interested in how we can marry startup culture with traditional brick-and-mortar entrepreneurship. We’re starting to see pockets of that now.”

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