Hackathons harness data for sustainability, fun and maybe profit

Two Steps Forward

Hackathons harness data for sustainability, fun and maybe profit

The idea that data can be the salvation to the environmental travails of the physical world seems counterintuitive. After all, how could millions, billions or even trillions of ones and zeros reduce air pollution, improve access to clean water, produce abundant food, fight climate change or make cities more sustainable? It seems far-fetched.

But in this hyper-digital, anything’s-possible world, the idea of data-as-deliverer seems reasonable. And increasingly, this idea is becoming a key part of the sustainability story: Data drives innovative products and services that greatly enhance individuals’ and society’s ability to become more efficient — and in the process, improve people’s lives.

That’s an underlying theme of GreenBiz Group's global series of VERGE conferences, which focuses on the intersection of tech and sustainability. It also undergirds the growing ecosystem of cities, companies, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and individuals finding ways to harness data to improve the world.

Over the past couple years, we’ve made the intersection of sustainability and data a staple of our coverage of the sustainable business scene. Data, we’ve written, is being harvested and harnessed to improve cities’ infrastructure, eliminate landfills, improve street lighting, accelerate energy-efficient buildings, reduce water leaks and boost innovation. There's an Internet of Things, an Internet of Buildings, an Internet of Cars (and another one of trucks). And there’s the consumption-reducing sharing economy, enabling people to increase the use of cars, beds and practically everything else.

It all begins with data, although it takes a great deal of effort by a wide range of players to make the data useful at the scale needed to effect change.

It’s the latter part of that equation that’s created a burgeoning world of hackathons, data jams and other events aimed at harnessing data to improve the world — along with the lives of those who inhabit it.

Take Hack City, GreenBiz Group’s event series that aims to “demonstrate the impact of combining business and applied information technologies in order to develop solutions that are scalable and sustainable,” in the words of my colleague Krys Freeman, GreenBiz's director of systems and technology, who leads Hack City. Starting last year, we’ve been producing Hack City events alongside our VERGE conferences. (Check out this short video from last year’s event.)

At the core of Hack City is a hackathon — an event, typically taking place over a weekend, in which groups of people come together in teams to engage in collaborative computer programming. The goal of each team is to create an app or solution set that others — cities, businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can put to use.

Hackathons are a growing part of the digital scene in tech hubs such as Boston, Austin and especially the San Francisco Bay Area, where hackathons of some sort or another happen almost weekly. Some are pure techy, with no specific content focus. Others focus on everything from science to sports.

Hack City takes a different tack, focusing on the notion of "resilient cities" — how technology can support cities, businesses and households in a way that can change citizen behavior on a daily basis, helping all parties withstand and recover from extreme weather and other disasters, as well as from everyday stresses to city systems.

"It is oriented around solving real challenges, seeding viable solutions with real market potential and creating the conditions uniquely suited to bring sustainability solutions to scale," says Freeman.

“Friday night is the pitch night," she explains. "Everyone comes in and says, ‘Here's an idea. If you want to work on this, come meet with me.’ Everybody comes back Saturday morning to start hacking. On Sunday, we do the judging, and the winners will get prizes." A few will be selected to pitch at VERGE Accelerate, the pitch competition that is part of every VERGE conference — in this case, at VERGE San Francisco, in mid-October.

In addition, there’s the possibility that one or more of the teams could go on to present at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com's annual user conference in November, which draws nearly 100,000 people to San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Salesforce is the lead sponsor of Hack City.

Not just hacking, but jamming

In addition to a hackathon, there’s also a Hack City Data Jam, in which a diverse set of executives, entrepreneurs, technologists, investors and policy experts come together to brainstorm new solutions, based on a collected list of challenges as well as a corresponding list of data sets and other digital tools.

The goal of the Data Jam, according to Freeman:

Convene a conversation with the regional stakeholders, including leadership at the federal state and municipal levels, NGOs and residents to answer the following question: “How can we use technology to support key agencies that are charged with advancing sustainable residential and business behavior on a daily basis to be able to scale up and meet the challenges that a large systems blockage (such as the BART strike) or regional disaster will generate (such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake)?”

In considering ways to leverage the rich data sets that are available to Data Jam participants, Freeman wanted to focus the conversation around something tangible. That led her to a newly passed Soft Story Ordinance in San Francisco, which requires building owners to undergo a review by an engineer to assess their properties for earthquake safety.

Freeman saw in that an opportunity to connect these same building owners with information about how to embed sustainability into their retrofits, reducing operating costs and improving the quality of life of the buildings' occupants. As a result, Data Jam participants will brainstorm ways to leverage existing databases — one of building owners subject to the new ordinance, another showing the energy performance of comparable buildings in the city — to embed sustainability into what is expected to be $1 billion worth of retrofits among San Francisco building owners.

Says Freeman: "If we use the data, we can do something really compelling that wouldn't have been able to be done otherwise." 

Both the hackathon and the data jam will run Sept. 20 to 22 at the offices of Code for America in San Francisco.

The curation process

One thing that separates Hack City from most of the other hackathons is the work Freeman puts in beforehand to identify opportunities and challenges where data and apps can play a positive role — “the curation process,” as she calls it. In recent weeks, Freeman has convened roundtables of community organizations, city officials and business leaders in search of collective intelligence about specific areas where hackers can make a difference. 

She sees almost unlimited potential in the ability of data — well-used and analyzed, and delivered in smart ways — to change how cities operate. “What’s fun about all this is that it’s forcing governments to recognize how they can better understand what the citizens need, and in a two-way conversation — not just saying, ‘Give me a permit,’ or ‘Here’s some random budget data.’ The conversation then changes the way, for example, San Francisco does budgeting.”

Freeman has great hopes that the apps and other digital tools coming out of Hack City’s hackathon and data jam will be enduring, not just weekend projects that hit a dead end come Monday morning.

That is, she hopes there will be more people like Galen Nelson, one of the participants of the VERGE Accelerate competition at our VERGE Boston event in May. His company, Crowd Comfort, “the world’s first crowd sourced thermostat,” an app for iPhones and other iOS devices, provides building occupants and facility owners with subjective user feedback toward the goal of ensuring optimal indoor air temperature and quality — “a gateway drug used to hook people on energy consumption awareness,” as Nelson put it. He and his co-founder are now working with several large customers to test the app in real-world settings.

That’s the beauty of Hack City: From little ones and zeros — plus a lot of ingenuity — can come big ideas.