In groups of twos and threes, the constituents lined up to take potshots at the assembled city officials.
“Just about any fifth-grader could do it better,” said Yan Digilov, speaking of the city’s request for proposals process. “We just hope to retire a lot of fax machines.”
In the audience, Houston Mayor Annise Parker gamely sat through the zingers, smiling and taking notes. Digilov and his colleagues were offering solutions along with their barbed commentary as part of Houston’s first citywide Hackathon on Saturday. Nearly 300 professional and amateur software developers gathered over the weekend to help city officials make their online services more efficient, or to create new apps and websites that would better serve residents.
For Houston leaders, the assembled techie brainpower—ready to work for free—is a boon for the city. Like many large American cities, Houston is strapped for resources. Bruce Haupt, the city’s deputy assistant director at the finance department, says his team often devises plans to help make city functions more efficient. But implementing such plans is difficult: “The bottleneck is always at IT,” he said.
Over the weekend, the 26 teams tackled projects that would help commuters know which routes were congested due to construction, provide a comprehensive list of the city’s bike trails, and give residents a better way to seek out and pay for permits for parades.
One group created an online database for up-to-date restaurant inspections named after Marvin Zindler, the famed Houston broadcaster who became known for his on-camera inspections and his signature phrase: “Slime in the ice machine!”
The hackers spent Saturday huddled in conference rooms at the Houston Technology Center. They ranged from those with streaks of gray in their hair to a trio of Taylor High School students joining a hackathon for the first time.“We thought it would be pretty cool to solve a problem, to make things happen,” said Jonathan Zong, a junior, who along with his classmates was trying to create an open-source platform for residents’ feedback. “We would really enjoy seeing an idea come to life.”
Ultimately, the top prize went to a program that simplified the search process related to obtaining required permits for construction, parades, and other activities. That project—as well as an open-source map and data search to find potential and existing green spaces in the city, and a location-aware mobile map to view bike lanes and trails around the city—will be presented to Parker and other city officials in about a month.
Many of the hackers—though, we’re assuming, not the underage students—had begun work the night before following a beer-fueled happy hour. “There are a lot of people who love Houston and want to make it an even better place to live,” said Jeff Reichman, a consultant who runs technology consultancy January Advisors and was one of the hackathon’s organizers. “And it’s really exciting that the city has a new way to engage the community.”