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Pittsburgh Thinkathon and Civic Hacking

on Thu, 06/06/2013 - 09:56

For most people, the word “hack” refers to the illegal entry into a computer network with the intent of stealing information or wreaking havoc on the system. A new definition has emerged in recent years, however, as computer programmers and software development engineers have begun to use the term to mean the exploitation of collected data in a way that benefits rather than harms society. In order to facilitate this modern form of “hacking,” forty-eight hour marathons are often organized, allowing technological experts to work together in order to design applications that meet the above criteria.

One such hackathon was held across the United States over the weekend of June 1, 2013—during what was proclaimed “National Day of Civic Hacking”—and Pittsburgh was one of the many cities involved in the proceedings. The resulting Pittsburgh Thinkathon attracted seventy-two registered participants, who were in turn led by eleven representatives of local tech companies. According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, proposals generated from the Thinkathon include software applications geared towards assisting students track their eligibility for Pittsburgh Promise, helping residents and visitors find unique locales around the city that are not usually found on a map, and making it easier to for drivers to interpret the varying parking regulations throughout the region.

“We want to first try to activate ideas from the community of what the community would like to see changed,” co-organizer Paul Burke told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beforehand. “The goal is, at the end of the weekend, there’s actually technical answers to problems that a bunch of activated, civically-minded developers, designers and business people have organized to solve.” The National Day of Civic Hacking also centered on the notion that local governments are beginning to see benefits from sharing their databases of information with such “hackers” in order to assist residents of a community. “There’s a lot of buzz around data initiatives calling for government to open this up and make it available,” Burke further explained to Pop City. “The city and county’s goal is to go faithfully into this process and build bridges that will improve the region.”

As for Paul Burke himself, his own goals in recent years have included finding ways to increase innovation within the growing Pittsburgh tech and startup scenes. Along with Kit Mueller—another co-organizer of Pittsburgh Thinkathon—Burke has founded such local promotional organizations like Rustbuilt and BuiltinPittsburgh, and currently serves as managing partner of venture capital accelerator Thinktiv. The hackathon held over the weekend of June 1st, meanwhile, dovetailed with these personal and professional agendas, as well as encouraged better cooperation between the local technological movers-and-shakers of the region and city government officials. Thinkathon was a collaborative effort that included Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s office, for instance, and current Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Peduto was on hand to announce the winning applications of the event.

“Usually data’s trapped up in the Ivory Tower,” Kit Mueller told the Post-Gazette. “Now that we can do this on the municipal and city level, I think it will be a little more tangible for people.”

It also helps make the word “hack” synonymous with a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Anthony Letizia (June 6, 2013)

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