UM to Participate in National Day of Civic Hacking June 1-2

Whether it is improving access to healthcare, helping women veterans find jobs, or increasing fire safety and prevention awareness, a multitude of federal agencies and local municipalities need assistance in solving some of their most complex challenges.

This weekend they will get the help they need, and it will come from a few unlikely sources: civic leaders, computer geeks, entrepreneurs, software developers, citizens, and even high school and college students – all of whom will unite to effect change.

The National Day of Civic Hacking takes place June 1-2 in more than 85 cities across the nation with the goal of using technology and publicly released data from local and federal agencies to solve problems faced by neighborhoods, cities, and states.

The University of Miami will participate in the national initiative through Hack for Change: Miami, June 1-2 at LABMiami, a Knight Foundation-funded innovation campus located in the Wynwood district.

“We expect to have small teams of people working on various civic hacking projects, some driven by challenges put forward by the federal government, others working on local challenges or civic problems of their own choosing,” said Richard Bookman, Ph.D., Senior Advisor for Program Development and Science Policy and former Vice Provost for Research at the Miller School. Bookman serves as a member of the national core team for the event and is one of the organizers of Hack for Change: Miami

Anyone can sign up for the Hack for Change: Miami event.

NASA, the Census Bureau, and the Department of Labor are just some of the federal agencies that have offered specific challenges for hackers to work on. Miami-Dade County also has submitted a challenge: the creation of a new mobile app that makes it easier for smartphone users to access the county’s 3-1-1 Answer Center to report neighborhood problems such as graffiti, code violations, and stray dogs.

“The range of problems that can be addressed is as broad as your imagination,” said Bookman, noting that a group of participants will work on sustainability issues related to South Florida.

Using publicly released government data sets as the raw material for creative expression will be a unique feature of the Miami event. “What do ‘we’ look like if a visual artist takes Miami or Florida census data and shapes them through computer code to display ‘us’ as changing shapes, colors, and patterns? Suppose we took weather data over the last 25 years and morphed those data points – temperature, humidity, wind speed – into a time series of musical notes? What does ‘humidity’ sound like?” Bookman asked. “The sky, so to speak, is not the limit when we bring creative artists together with programmers and feed them data about us, our world, and our lives.”

Added Bookman, “I can’t wait to see what the talented folks in the Frost School’s Music Engineering Program come up with. I’m sure it will amaze.”

Hackathons have already resulted in effective solutions for many communities faced with unique challenges, he noted. During winter months in Boston, fire hydrants often get buried beneath piles of snow, making it difficult for firefighters to locate and connect their hoses to them. But a team from Code for America, a nonprofit organization that uses Web-industry professionals to help city governments work better, developed an app that maps the locations of hydrants so that volunteers can find and dig them out after snowstorms. The Adopt-a-Hydrant program now exists in several U.S. cities.

The decision to release data showing the locations of fire hydrants was instrumental in helping civic hackers to solve Boston’s problem. The release of other forms of information can similarly aid in solving other challenges. “Federal, state, and local governments are making more and more data available and usable, creating an important new tool to improve our society, our lives, and our health,” said UM President Donna E. Shalala. “Events like National Day of Civic Hacking invite citizens from all professions and interests to take a look at this new information and think about creative ways to use it to solve problems.”

Robin Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement, said that her office is participating in Hack for Change: Miami “because the more educated citizens are, the more engaged they become.”

“Whether it’s using data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find out which neighborhoods have the highest need for affordable housing, or examining weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to predict likely areas of storm surge and beach erosion, using new technologies to access this data enables American citizens to participate in the process of forging solutions to our communities’ most pressing problems,” Bachin said.

UM’s Center for Computational Science, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, Frost School of Music, Miller School of Medicine, and School of Communication are also participating in the event. Alberto Cairo, a faculty member at the School of Communication who is an authority on information graphics and visualization, will deliver a keynote address on June 1 at the Miami event.

As many as 30 projects produced at the nationwide Hack for Change events will be presented at the White House as part of a Champions for Change event. “But this is about collaboration, not competition,” said Bookman. “There are no winners, other than the communities themselves. On the other hand, showing your stuff to the president would be pretty cool.”

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