San Diego Uses Hackathon to Generate Ideas for Climate Action Plan

“Can government really help drive innovation?”

That might not be the sort of question you’d want to ask the crowd at a Donald Trump rally.

But it was received with more optimism than sneers when a City of San Diego official posed the question Wednesday evening at the outset of an awards dinner for the San Diego Smart City Hackathon. If the hackathon itself is any indication, government can help drive innovation—if the right kind of public-private partnerships can be created, if the mayor and others at the highest level of city government are willing partners, and if the city provides open access to its data.

It’s also important to ensure that certain tried-and-true incentives are maintained, according to Jonathan Reichental, who flew in from Silicon Valley to help select the winner from five hacker teams selected as finalists for Wednesday’s event.

San Diego Smart City Hackathon Awards Dinner

San Diego Hackathon Awards Dinner at UC San Diego

Reichental, who has served as chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, CA, since 2011, explained that it’s important that city governments not claim ownership of the technologies that entrepreneurs and innovators develop to help solve their urban problems. “People will innovate for cities if they can make money at it,” he told the crowd.

The San Diego hackathon was organized to crowd-source new uses for sensors and other Internet of Things technologies that could help the City of San Diego meet the environmental goals laid out in its new climate action plan. More than 200 programmers, designers, engineers, and hackers registered for the event last weekend, and nearly 80 worked through the night to refine their ideas. City officials shared hundreds of data sets in such areas as electricity use, water consumption, and traffic patterns. Corporate partners like Teradata (NYSE: TDC) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOMM) provided their expertise and technologies to the teams.

The five environmental goals laid out in the city’s action plan are:

—Promote climate resiliency, for example, by mitigating the consequences of wildfires

—Encourage energy and water efficiency

—Develop a plan to achieve zero waste through recycling

—Increase the generation and use of renewable energy

—Reduce carbon dioxide emissions (and traffic congestion) by encouraging people to use transportation alternatives like bicycling, walking, and using public transit.

San Diego Smart City Hackathon Connecting the Data DotsOf the 22 solutions that teams submitted, organizers selected five finalists to make four-minute presentations. The winners and finalists were:

Routed, a mobile app that analyzes daily traffic patterns and determines the relative costs for different modes, was named the overall winner. The top prize, a $5,000 check from the San Diego Foundation, was presented to teamates Kirk Davis, Chuanqiao Huang, Sara Attou, and Matthew Attou. Routed also was awarded high-resolution computer monitors for “Best Data Visualization,” one of two sub-awards.

One Drop uses sensors to track water usage, and a software application encourages competitive efforts to conserve water by showing residents how their water usage compares with their neighbors’. The teammates behind One Drop—Carmel Fiscko, YiDing Fang, Max Oliver Geislinger, Lydia Ko, Max Xing, and Mason Park—took the second sub-award, for best Internet of Things technology.

Grasshopper is a ride-sharing app for carpooling developed by Arleen Ponce, Byron Ponce, and Jason Liu. The mobile app encourages community engagement by identifying neighbors who plan to attend the same events, and connects carpoolers with their neighbors.

Recyclic, a virtual reality game created by Anish Kannan and Nick Crow that challenges players to sort incoming trash in a “virtual” recycling plant. If a player makes a mistake (by sorting trash in the wrong category), the game explains how the material should be correctly sorted. If the player does well, the trash arrives faster and faster, enabling players to earn higher scores. The game is intended to address one of the city’s perennial recycling issues: San Diego residents don’t do a good job of sorting their recyclables.

IncentiWise encourages the use of alternative modes of transportation by offering credits to users who walk, bicycle, or use public transit. Teamates Paul McMahon, Martin Pszczola, Calvin Xavier Gomez, Rashmi Keshava Iyengar, and Nihar Mauskar created a mobile app for both Android and iOS that tracks the use of alternate transportation. The credits can be used to buy public transit passes and coupons, or to get products and deals from participating local businesses.

Daniel Obodovski, an Internet of Things evangelist who was one of the hackathon’s chief organizers, said he would consider the hackathon a success if the City of San Diego adopts at least one of the technologies to support its climate action plan.

But it shouldn’t end there. “Hackathons are great at making a splash, and bringing everyone together for a time-limited event,” Obodovski said. But a common failing comes after the hackathon is over. It takes a conscious effort to keep the community engaged and to sustain the momentum for innovation.

“It was never the idea to just do a hackathon,” Obodovski said. “It was always to do the hackathon as a kickoff to better things.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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