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Steel City Codefest: A Hackathon with a Twist

on Wed, 02/27/2013 - 10:40

Hackathons have become popular and widespread in recent years, with both tech companies and venture capitalists sponsoring 24-hour computer programming marathons for the creation of new software applications. Most hackathons are in the form of competitions, with the end results having the potential to launch startup companies and transform industry. In late November 2012, meanwhile, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced a joint effort between local universities, the Urban and Redevelopment Authority and Google that takes the basic elements of a hackathon and turns it into an instrument for civic improvement. “Our ultimate goal is to create opportunity for Pittsburgh’s best and brightest minds to connect and use skills to create apps that are useful to city residents,” Ravenstahl explained at the time.

Now flashforward three months to the weekend of February 22, 2013, when the resulting Steel City Codefest was officially held with one hundred local programmers, graphic designers and artists participating in the 24-hour marathon session. The goal was relatively simple—to take the plethora of data gathered by the city on an ongoing basis and design an app that would transform that information into something beneficial to residents. The resulting creations were diverse in their objectives, covering everything from finding a parking space, accessing public transportation schedules, reporting potholes and finding ways to reduce their utility bills.

“This event is to showcase the potential of using public, available data and the human capital of coders and programmers to make it useful for citizens and businesses,” City Innovation, Performance and Strategy manager Chuck Half told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “The real focus is to improve the quality of life in Pittsburgh, and this data and application can come together to do that.”

The Steel City Codefest was a success right from the start, with the one hundred available slots for the event selling out within forty-eight hours in November. As for the actual competition, the 24-hour marathon session resulted in a number of useful apps, including those created by the three winning teams—EnLightened, OpenDataPgh and ParkIt. The EnLightened app allows residents to share information about their utility bills with fellow Pittsburghers living in similarly sized homes in order to compare rates and better manage costs. OpenDataPgh likewise enables users to share data, specifically about local neighborhoods and school districts. ParkIt, meanwhile, created an app that not only assists a driver to find a parking space but enables them to “feed the meter” via their cell phone.

Participants in the Steel City Codefest did not receive any funding for the development of their products, but they also retain ownership rights for their creations. While none may be as successful as GroupMe—which was produced as part of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 hackathon and sold to Skype the next year for $85 million—many of the resulting apps will hopefully become available to city residents and fulfill the declared mission of the collaborative effort.

Anthony Letizia (February 27, 2013)

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