As part of the Programmable City project, some of our research involves looking at hackathons, hack nights, and their role in city governance. Hackathon’s are increasingly being used by city governments as a way to tap into the creativity of its citizens and make use of open data to help manage the city and address issues that citizen’s may find important.
Meyer and Ermoshima (2013, 3) categorise hackathons into three types: “issue oriented”, centred around a problem or set of problems; “tech oriented”, focused on developing systems; and “data oriented”, where the data sets required to be worked upon are supplied by the organisers. These events are becoming increasingly appealing to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and governments who see potential in these events to “reform their structure, renew their methods of functioning, and attract the attention of developers” (Meyer and Ermoshima 2013, 3). The social and ethical benefits derived from the use of open governmental data has seen an increase in “civic hackathons”. Following the American “coding for democracy” movement, Meyer and Ermoshima described civic hackers as “technologists, civil servants, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers – anybody – who is willing to collaborate with others to create, build, and invent to address challenges relevant to our neighbourhoods, our cities, our states and our country… a hacker is someone who uses a minimum of resources and a maximum of brainpower and ingenuity to create, enhance or fix something” (2013, 3).
Thus as Meyer and Ermoshima (2013, 5) note hackathons contain an experimental element of bricolage as well as being collaborative, heterogeneous and constituted by hybrid networks, through which they question divisions of technical experts and others. This creates an innovation and problem solving tool that creates “appropriate conditions to work on a social challenge, to develop software and hardware solutions and to create a sustainable community or ecosystem of technical and non-technical experts, lawyers, activists and citizens” (Meyer and Ermoshima 2013, 6)
With regards to civic hackathons or those encouraged by the government, the belief is that hackathons are methods of connecting communities, developing relationships between communities, governments and tech people, and creates a better city for all. It is reflective of the ideal of letting “the collective energy of the people in the room come together and really take that data and solve things in creative and imaginative ways” (Llewellyn 2012).
But do they actually live up to the promise? Are there any success stories where hackathon’s have produced apps which have made a significant change to the city? Or is it more rhetoric with limited real world application and difference? As part of our research we are attending regular hack meet ups such as Code for All Ireland, Coding Grace and Pyladies to get an idea about the dynamics of the groups, what they do for participants and what participants in turn give back to the group and the broader community.
As our research within Dublin hacking spaces is a work in progress, I will look at another example of hacking oriented problem solving for cities. Let’s have a look at where the government has run app competitions to try and provide solutions to city-based problems. A perennial favourite in these contexts and contests, is public transport. How can an app help negotiate the challenges of the public transport commute?
I’ll use Sydney as an example here. In 2012 the New South Wales (NSW) Government held an app hacking competition for developing public transport apps that used real time data and which were intended to help commuters better plan their journey and create a better public transport experience. The three successful apps, TripView, TripGo and Arrivo Sydney were launched in December 2012. According to the NSW Government, the apps contain data spanning 8,200 stops, more than 1,900 buses and close to 1,200 routes throughout Sydney. It is claimed that TripView is one of the most popular apps with close to 1 million requests each week. According to the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian,
Real Time information for buses is changing the way public transport customers travel – they are now able to plan ahead, not just by looking at the timetable but by actually seeing where their bus is located on the route, and its estimated time of arrival… This is just one of the many improvements we are making to improve technology across the transport network to make customer journeys easier.
The apps do seem to be useful. On one morning commute, I overheard a conversation about the realtime apps. This fellow commuter reasoned the apps helped you decide when you needed to leave the house in order to catch your bus on time or let you know how long you had to wait, and observed that “It adds value to the waiting experience”. A happy customer it seems.
The apps were the product of a Transport for NSW (TfNSW) App Hot House which was facilitated by PWC’s Digital Change team. The Hot House was held over a two day period and during this time the teams worked with General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data and API feed that delivered real time bus information to create prototypes of consumer products for mobile phones which they had to pitch to judging panel consisting of Transport for NSW, industry experts and PWC’s Digital Change Team. It was particularly important for teams to demonstrate that their business model could work in the real world and that it would improve the travel experience. The winning teams received:
- First access to the real time information
- The opportunity to collaborate with TfNSW stakeholders
- Promotional support from TfNSW for their apps
You can find a video of the app competition here:
There was some criticism of Transport NSW’s App Hot House project however. The data was made available to only a selected group of developers and there were claims that this created an anti-competitive market which did not benefit consumers. Transport NSW commented that they are considering opening up real time data to other than the approved app users but need to make sure that their internal infrastructure for data delivery is robust and secure enough to support all subscribers and deliver a consistent level of service to customers. Additionally, the real time information was not available to all Sydney commuters:
The real time information will initially be available in the Sydney CBD, the eastern suburbs, the inner west, southern suburbs, northwestern suburbs, the northern beaches and lower North Shore. The apps contain real-time data spanning some 8200 stops, more than 1900 buses and almost 1200 routes across the Sydney Bus Network.
The success of the real time bus apps prompted the State Government to run a similar competition to develop real time train apps for Sydney trains. RailCorp developed a data feed of real time train locations which was made available to developers. Live information from the trains, received by markers placed at stations, was immediately fed back to customers via apps on their handheld devices. According to the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, Transport NSW was
keen to improve the customer experience on the rail network and we know that a Real Time Train App will give customers the information they need to make decisions about their journey, all in the palm of their hand.
But it was not always a government that was promoting citizen use of data to create tools that would help city service users. There were examples of apps made prior to the App Hot House which the government shut down citing the argument that the transport data system could not yet provide reliable and sustainable feed and therefore the apps couldn’t offer a reliable service. There is also some controversy about the non-universal access to the data when the government did eventually provide it in real time.
Prior to the government endorsed apps, some developers had created apps without support from Transport NSW. In 2012 the government and Google announced that transport data would be available on Google maps, joining 400 other cities which were already doing this. However, the information remained static timetable data, updated once a week, and it seemed the government was resisting releasing real-time data to third parties.
In 2011 Ben Hosken created a real-time app from data released by the government for a two week period before an “app day”. The app was a success receiving 200,000 views in the two weeks it was available before Hosken’s was asked by the NSW government to take it down. The government justified their request to remove the app by saying the system was not yet reliable enough to provide a reliable and sustainable feed, while maintaining that they were committed to providing data to developers. A similar reason was also given to another developer, Marcus Schappi, in 2010.
At that stage, Berejiklian, said that the government was working towards being able to provide the data in real-time, “… we will be sending weekly updates, but as the systems become more proficient we can provide more updates and eventually get to real time.” Presumably once the system was capable of providing reliable real time data it would be made accessible to chosen developers.
Accessing the data would however require developer’s signing agreements with the state government. According to Berejiklian, “That’s a formal relationship, and obviously if we do embark on that in the future we want to make sure the organisation we are dealing with is going to respect the integrity of the data we are providing them and is going to make sure that they are used in a good way that’s going to help people.”
Hosken and Schappi, were not the only developers who were ahead of Transport NSW’s ideas on the use of their data. TripView developer, Nick Maher was also threatened with copyright infringement, along with other developers who created the apps, Metro Sydney and Transit Sydney, by NSW government agency, Railcorp. This was despite Railcorp not offering a comparable service.
Maher developed TrainView in 2007 and TripView in 2008 had to stop selling both apps after threats from RailCorp. Maher claims that he had asked them at the time whether they had any problems using the data and they had said they didn’t have any. He continued to sell the applications before recently contacting them about some updates. RailCorp then said they had changed their stance with regard to copyright and that they weren’t giving people permission to use their data in third-party apps.
RailCorp has contacted about four developers requesting them to remove from sale mobile applications that breach RailCorp’s copyright over its timetables because these applications were providing out-of-date timetables that had the potential to confuse and mislead our customers…Copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp. Any unlicensed republication of the timetables represents a breach of this copyright. We have not pursued any legal action to date.
Railcorp did however open up its data through a competition in 2013. According to Maher, this was a good thing: “They could have built their own app but instead opened it up to competition which is good because you get more innovation that way.” He added that the concern with the earlier apps had been because the government was worried the data was incorrect. NSW premier, Nathan Rees, had to intervene after a social media storm, and gave his support to the developers.
Intellectual property lawyer, Trevor Choy, said that even though RailCorp was a public service, copyright law was “biased” in favour of the Government and did not make any distinction between information that should be a public service, like train timetables, and private information. “Government agencies are supposed to use their powers wisely, but here they are behaving exactly like a private company preventing a competitor from launching a ‘competing product’” said Choy.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Dr Nicholas Gruen, former chairperson of the Australian federal government’s Web 2.0 taskforce, who welcomed Berejiklian and the transport’s department’s move to open up the transport data to Google, noting that people have been attempting to access that data in NSW for five years. He cautioned however, that in Sydney’s case there was evidence bureaucracy was weighing the minister down, and referred to the fact that there “are over 400 cities in the world that provide that sort of data to Google and others, and many of them do it on an open basis”. Gruen suggested that to fully utilise government data, required lowering hurdles to its use which means “making it as easy as possible for the developer’s computer to tap into a stream of information provided by the government without, if possible, stopping to ask permission”.
There is clearly a debate about the openness of the data and the way the government utilises both this data and the skills of developers to manage city systems. This example is not true of all cities as Gruen alluded to. Cities have their own approaches to data, whom they make it accessible to, and to which areas it is applied. The Sydney transport apps example does however provide insight into the complexity and legal issues surrounding the use of data. It is also an example of where the product of the hackathon has been successfully adopted by city users.
The hackathon is not without critique. Referring to the city solutions driven hackathons, Mattern for example notes that they reflect the increasing “widgetization” and individualism of the city. Mattern discusses this observation, claiming that the apps derived from open government data often only serve a single function and rarely survive without institutional support, framing their users as both sources and consumers of data interested in their own consumption of city spaces,
These interfaces to the smart city suggest that we’ve traded in our environmental wisdom, political agency and social responsibility for corporately-managed situational information, instrumental rationality and personal consumption and convenience. We seem ready to translate our messy city into my efficient city.
Hackathons and the apps they produce may not therefore serve all or benefit the majority of the community and are often inspired by an individual’s perspective on what they think would make the city better and their own life within that city more pleasurable. While the Sydney transport apps discussed above do seem to have been enthusiastically adopted and have no doubt improved many commuters transport experience, it should also be remembered that not all areas in the wider Sydney region were given access to real time transport information, and that not all transport users utilise the technology that enables the app. When discussing hackathons as part of the wider programmable city discourse we should continue to ask what and who’s vision of the city does it present and how does this shape the city spaces and urban experience for everyone.
We’ll be trying to gain further insight into the role of hackathons in the city and whether they are successful and live up to their hype through our ongoing research and by attending regular hackathons and hack meet ups. We’ll keep you posted on the work that hackathons do in the smart city.
Llewellyn, A. (2012, June 29). The power of hackathons in government. (S. Herron, Editor, & NASA) Retrieved 2 May , 2014, from open.NASA: http://open.nasa.gov/blog/2012/06/29/the-power-of- hackathons-in-government/
Mattern, S. 2014. Interfacing Urban Intelligence. Places: Design Observer. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/how-do-we-interface-with-smart-cities/38443/ (accessed 17 June 2014).
Meyer, M. and K. Ermoshina. 2013 Bricolage as collaborative exploration: transforming matter, citizens and politics. Draft paper for the i3 Conference Cooperating for innovation: devices for collective exploration Telecom ParisTech 2.12.2013 accessed 15/7/14 from http://www.i-3.fr/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Meyer_conferenceI32013.pdf