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Hacking For Change From the Inside

This is the story of how four local government employees, on our own time, formed a team and participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking; what we accomplished and what we learned.

I recently participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking by attending the Boulder Civic Hackfest in Boulder, Colorado. Together with three other local government employees: Susan Christophersen from Boulder County, Susan Wolak and Amy Scriver from the City of Longmont; we formed a team and tackled the idea of a unified public trail app that would encompass all of the surrounding communities.

The Boulder region has an amazing trail system (hiking, biking, walking) and Boulder County already has an excellent trails app, but it only shows county-owned trails. Some of the trails continue well beyond the county border into surrounding cities and counties. In some cases it only shows part of a trail because the other portion is owned by the City of Boulder.

This lack of contiguous, all-encompassing data in the trails app is frustrating for the end user who doesn’t understand, or care, who owns what trails. Think about how frustrating it would be to have to open a new app to get a map of all the roads for each city you drive through and you should have a pretty clear picture of why this is a problem.

We set our goals for the weekend:

  1. Find as many datasets as possible
  2. Normalize and integrate all the datasets
  3. Create a web page with a map showing all the trails
  4. Integrate that map into a mobile app for Android and iOS
  5. If time allowed, add geotagged Flickr photos to the map

We started out by identifying data sources. Since we all work in government, we actually knew that our three government bodies published some form of trails info as open data. We also attempted to identify sources from other surrounding communities with limited success (we found trails data for the nearby city of Louisville, but not from a government source).

Once we had identified the data sets, we set about trying to normalize the data so that it would be similar and work together. What we found out was just because you publish open data doesn’t mean it’s useful:

  1. Longmont only published biking trails data;
  2. Boulder County had two different data sets: one for mountain trails and one for city trails;
  3. City of Boulder only published their data as SHP (shape) files (we needed KML files);
  4. Louisville’s data wasn’t ‘official’;
  5. Many other areas had no open data at all;
  6. All the data sets had differing metadata

This was a very big eye-opening moment for all of us. As government employees we were proud of the fact that our governments were publishing the trails info as open data. As citizen hackers, we were frustrated that the data was so difficult to use and combine.

We adjusted our expectations and decided to just work on getting all the data into the KML (Keyhole Markup Language) format as a good first step. Towards that goal, we were able to convert City of Boulder’s SHP file into KML to match the rest of the data.

We opted to use the Google Maps API to display all four KML files on a map. This turned out to be fairly easy, mainly because Google Maps works well with KML data, and we got this portion of the project working in a web page rather quickly on the first day.

Our third step was to use PhoneGap, a free and open source mobile application framework, to compile an iOS and Android version into a rudimentary app as proof of concept. This ended up being a huge roadblock for us as we were never able to get the map page to display in the app we created. To be fair, none of us knew PhoneGap (learning new technologies and working outside our comfort zones were some of our goals for the weekend).

In the end we were never able to get the mobile app running. While that was frustrating, everyone involved felt like we had accomplished a great deal just by working together, learning new tools and APIs and making the attempt. We hope to continue working on the project as well.

One of the biggest lessons we learned is that we need more open data and we need more useful open data. If we have the right data in the right formats we can create things of use for our communities that our respective governments haven’t, for whatever reasons, been able to do.

Government is participatory and it was great being able to engage with it in a way that was different from my job within government.

As a citizen and a government employee, I’m in a special place where I can bring these two perspectives together to get a bigger picture of the things that are possible as well as the issues that keep them from happening. I hope I can also help to resolve some of those issues citizens, like myself, face when trying to use government data.

Many thanks to my teammates Susan Christophersen, Susan Wolak and Amy Scriver (whose idea this was in the first place) for all the work they put into this. It was fun and I learned a lot!

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Susan Wolak

Great post summarizing our weekend efforts. I know personally, there was a lot that I learned from the weekend hackfest, and more learning to come in the future. Thanks to our team – what a fun time.

Traci Tillis

My comment seems to be truncated. I’m not sure why, but I’m going to give it another try….

My team RGreenway (http://rgreenway.com) competed (and won) last year’s CityCamp NC (http://citycampnc.org) for a very similar idea. RGreenway has been working through a lot of the same issues you’ve described and have found that our partnership with local government either makes or breaks our ability to import worthwhile data into the app. Our team maintains and upgrades the app on a completely voluntary basis and we, too, have learned a lot of great lessons. I commend you all on the work you’re doing!

We would love to speak with you guys about your experience and share challenges/solutions.