Saturday, September 12: turned out to be a beautiful late Summer day. Sam and Sonya arrived at PPL around 7:30, bright and early, and got the coffee brewing. We put a few last minute arrangements in order– printing some presenter bios, printing schedules for ourselves and the team, and before long Anita, Denise, Janell and Ruth arrived. With the whole team here (and the swag bags from Maine Health!) we really buckled down to make sure the hackathon participants would have a nice environment for the day.
Next in was Beth Bordowitz, the president of the board of trustees at Portland Public Library– she was on hand to welcome the city manager, and show support of the PPL organization. Before long the hackers started arriving– with 22 people registered, we quickly sprang into positions and began to welcome everyone. Ruth and Denise stationed themselves at the front entrance, Sam sat at the welcoming table and checked people in, and Sonya, Anita, and Janell buzzed about tidying the breakfast table and making sure everything else was ready. Shortly before 9am, Jon Jennings arrived, and the rest of the team joined the hackers to listen to his opening remarks. Looking around the room as he spoke, there was total captivation and a lot of head nodding and smiles.
Jon Jennings: Among various political roles in Washington, DC, such as serving as the Acting Assistant Attorney General, and working under President Clinton, Mr. Jennings also held coaching and management positions in Boston with the Boston Celtics. His varied background also includes owning a frozen yogurt shop at the Maine Mall, and he admitted to not needing this position with the City of Portland, but felt personally driven to work to help our city.
Mr. Jennings had a lot of great things to say about Portland, but delved into his talk by describing its shortcomings, both from by city government, such as the responsiveness of his staff to answer questions posed by citizens, to the technological failings Portland is facing. The city is “behind the curveball” in many aspects related to technology, and though he was able to pinpoint funding as an issue, community driven events like this hackathon eliminate monetary concerns. With that, he really got inspirational– let’s make Portland a “tech hub of the nation” was my personal favorite quip. He talked about ways in which Portland, and government in general, can leverage technology to aid in the democratic process. Democracy isn’t about always agreeing on things, it is polite conversation and has forward movement. Politics in all forms of government have become uncivil in the last 40 years, and that needs to change.
The civic hackathon aims to help!
Next, we got an overview of the day from Anita Ruff, who gave specifics on the problem at hand: how to we engage people in civic conversations who can’t make traditional meetings. We went around the room and had people with existing ideas describe their proposed project, and people without projects simply introduced themselves and shared their interests and skills. After that, we asked people to spend time talking with each other, in hopes organic groups and similar ideas would meld. They did!
We had three cohesive groups that emerged–
- One group chose to tackle the problem from a very technological perspective, thinking about utilizing things like mesh networking, internet relay chat (IRC), GPL, GNU, and a lot of other very confusing concepts to non-programmers.
- Another group came at the problem from a very civic perspective– how to make public spaces more inviting, how to encourage dialogue, how to eliminate obstacles, and how to ask the right questions. This group seemed very philosophical, and had a lot of intense debate through just the opening hours.
- A third group came together by thinking about online bulletin boards where organizations can automatically upload their flyers. Programming languages like Ruby, PHP, and Python were tossed around as a way to build out this concept.
And with that, people buckled in! We broke for a delicious Otto’s pizza lunch at noon, and heard from Mike Roylos who attended another civic hackathon here in Portland, and came away with not only the winning concept, but a product so viable it has become his day job: The Cigarette Buttler!
People got back down to work after lunch, and we could really sense the energy going on inside each room. We put out a snack table, and took turns staffing it and being on hand to answer any questions from the hackers. It was also a chance to walk outside and stretch our legs, and check out the other civic activity going on–Portland’s second annual greenfest! This big event generated some additional traffic for us, mostly comments that “aw, I wish I could have come.” Though there were a few, “can I have one of those cookies?” We reserved the sugar for the hackers, though.
The afternoon unfolded steadily. We The energy stayed high through the predictable afternoon dip. I saw lots of people reaching for the freshly brewed coffee Anita brought out around 3pm, and I myself took a 5 minute power nap at my desk around 4:30. Just in time for the food truck to arrive at 5pm to start serving dinner! As people emerged from their rooms, we encouraged them to check out the food offerings and order their fill. The teams were so dedicated, most hackers took their dinners right back to their workstations and continued to hack! Meanwhile, the team members talked shop with the food truck owners, and learned their concept started as a community project, too! The first judge arrived, and was able to catch up on how the day was going over a paper basket of crispy brussels sprouts.
After dinner plates were cleared, we moved the rest of the activity towards the auditorium and geared up for the awards. The remaining two judges arrived around 6:45, and with the library officially closed to the public, we could sense something big was coming. For me, the last thirty minutes before everyone sat down to present their projects was the hardest. A 15 hour day of work is hard enough, but knowing we were about to see the culmination of our ILEAD planning was torturous! However, we remained calm and collected (maybe due too to the fact the was cake coming), and helped each of the teams ensure their presentations connected with our projector system.
Finally, at 7:30pm, we introduced ourselves again, giving thanks to our awesome mentor, Ruth, and turned it over to the judges and the teams. Looking back, we definitely needed to have given time limits for presentations. But the energy and enthusiasm from everyone was so high, it was interesting to have it be self-limiting, too.
First up: BetsyRo
Their vision is to work with the library on this project, if possible. The ultimate goal is to display the flyers from TV displays like the library information is available now, although they would appreciate the chance to be included on the library computers, for instance, so that patrons could easily access our information. They wonder if perhaps the city might be interested in hosted a similar service for people, after noticing that there were several other sites similar to theirs, but that many suffered from a lack of participation; “we want to make sure that our message(s) get out to the general public.”
Comments from the developer, Scott Maccallum:
[ Many of you have asked me what my profile background picture is about. Last Saturday a partner and I participated in a hackathon competition. We had from 8:30 AM to 8:00 PM to write a free and open source computer program that helped people with time constraints or other impediments with participating civilly in the democratic process. I had already conceived and written rough prove of concept code that sort of worked while the first speaker presented. Later my partner, Andrew (after meeting for the first time) and I decided to work together. Andrew started with the creation of the Web and Internet Relay Chat client portion of the project while I got the Java framework and prototype bot going. Once I was done with that, Andrew contributed a nifty array feature to the bot. All in all a good day of work. We were rewarded first place and $1,500 in seed money for future development of the project, Betsyro. The name Betsyro is a pun on Betsy (Ro)ss and Betsy (Ro)bot. I couldn’t resist following the programmer tradition of using a pun for the name of my programming project. ]
The Betsyro source code repository is at GitHub:https://github.com/scmaccal/betsyro
My partner Andrew and I are meeting Tuesday at Hack Portland to discuss how to move forward with the project. I’m also looking forward to receiving more input from others about how they would like the project to evolve (features) and learning more about the seed money. Betsyro lives!
*Winning Team that will receive $1,500 in seed money to continue product development*
This group conceptualized meeting software. Small groups, or meetings, will be tasked with answering questions (possibly around civic topics, but it can open up to school and organizational use, too). There would be a tablet that users submit their responses through. This was developed by a Baxter Academy teacher, Hal, and his student, Ben, and they thought perhaps they could use it to be one of their year long experiential learning projects. Ben gave most of the presentation, which impressed the audience since he was easily the youngest participant. The judges suggested a that maybe there is a segment of the business community that would use this kind of product – for market research or other in depth feedback solicitation.