Durham Civic Innovation

Code for Durham, Durham Cares, and Hack Duke kick off a new chapter


Amidst three other Saturday events, Durham Mayor William Bell took time to welcome 500 students this weekend at the HackDuke: Code for Good event (Nov 15–16, 2014). He knows, like many of us know, that “software is eating the world” and that the growth of medium-sized cities like Durham (Triangle Research Park or not) depends on their ability to fully welcome this community.

Months earlier, Ashley Qian and the HackDuke undergraduate organizing team thankfully committed to the Code for Good theme, and opened the door to community collaboration with Code for Durham & DurhamCares. So students gathered from Duke, UNC, NC State, GA Tech, Virginia Tech, U Chicago, U Toronto among others to learn, engage with tough issues, and create solutions to make the world a little bit better. 90+ mentors also gathered from the top tech companies across the country including Google, Facebook, Citix, Ebay, Coursera, and more, there primarily to recruit.

What was exciting and most different to me, though, was the fact that 10 local volunteers from Durham Community came, including public employees like Mayor Bell, John Killeen, Tobin Freid, as well as representatives from Emily K. Center, Community Empowerment Fund and Urban Ministries Center, and Research Triangle Park High School. And many, many more than that participated in the event before it even started.

Janet Xiao from the Community Empowerment Fund in Durham coached students on problems she faces in workforce development which led to the Ujuzzi project (see below) Photo Credit: Chrislyn Choo

So what came of all this? There are three key results from this event:

  • Community Listening: Code for Durham & DurhamCares convened and consulted about 50 leaders from the community to start conversations about how tech can support real challenges faced in areas of Poverty & Inequality, Health & Wellness, Energy & Environment, and Education. While not all of the 30 challenges written were tackled by students (some were too big for a 24 hour period), the process has kickstarted an important ongoing conversation in which anyone can participate in HERE.
  • Four amazing projects were created that were rooted in direct challenges have came out of this government, non-profit and university collaboration. (More details below)
  • Spike in Engagement with Public Open Data with over 2,000 new page views on data than otherwise would have happened.

Result 1: Community Challenges

Code for Durham, a local brigade of the national non-profit Code for America, is excited about continuing to listen to the community and crowdsource problems that need technology interventions — be it a better interface, a crowdsourcing application, or a data visualization.

We are continuing to compile un-answered community challenges here, and invite you to contribute.

Some current challenges include:

War on Cankerworm Outbreaks!

Saving Lives by Saving Minutes in Emergency Response

Saving on Local Government Energy Usage

Affordable Rental Housing Tracking / Visualization

Yelp for Social Services

…many others

Result 2: Impressive Hack Duke Projects

The 76 submitted projects that came out of this 24-hr Hack Duke event are a powerful testament to how open data can spur community engagement and innovation. Some even used the Durham City and County data we released for the event.

We want to highlight here projects that responded to community challenges that Code for Durham & Durham Cares worked to pose in advance of the event.

  • Tagged: inspired by Urban Ministries Durham, this group created an easy-to-use donated inventory management system to aid homeless shelters in keeping track of donated clothing supplies. Without training, volunteers can use a barcode scanner and simple website to save time. Managers would better be able to track data of shortages and surpluses between different social service providers.
  • Ride or Die: Using NC Bike Crash Database from NC DOT acquired by Code for Durham, this application uses the data and predictive analytics tools to highlight the danger zones on biking paths within Google Maps using a familiar green/yellow/red color coding system, based on time of day and type of road.
  • Flash Aid: inspired by a challenge that Code for Durham took from the City of Durham’s strategic goal for a Safe & Secure Community, this group created a mobile application that can lower medical emergency response times by providing a crowdsourcing platform for community first responders.
  • Ujuzzi means “Skills” in Swahili, inspired by a challenge from the Community Empowerment Fund. this group created a dead-simple website for workers re-entering the workforce to be able to automatically translate their past experiences into HR-friendly language for a resume or cover letter.

Potential Bonus Hack — One team is still working on an Energy Usage Dashboard, aided by the new release of City and County building energy usage data (thanks Tobin Freid!). While they didn’t submit to the contest within the 24 hrs, the team has said they would finish v1 within a few weeks.

While these teams are recovering from sleep deprivation and coursework overload, Code for Durham is committed to engaging with these students and community mentors to support taking these projects forward in the coming weeks. Their projects are not full-fledged products but important prototypes and potential solutions that if supported by the local community could really improve lives.

Students demo their projects

Result 3: Open Data Engagement

No one engages with data if it’s not Open — easy to access and play with. But special events are also needed to put the spotlight on interesting data.

We saw 4x ave page views during the event on Nov 15 than the local brigade portal provided by Socrata normally sees.

Including the week leading up to the event, we saw +2,000 page views. That’s all incremental engagement with public data.

As the (cheesy) Durham slogan goes, it’s clear that “great things can happen” from a little collaboration, 24 hours and a lot of caffeine!

Let’s keep the momentum going.

I would love to help create a similar event in the Spring that focusses solely on Durham — bringing the local tech community together, government employees and generally “the people” of Durham out to work on important civic tech priorities and projects.

Taking a cue from Lauren Ellen McCann’s post on running a community-based Civic Hackathon, we will do it a bit differently than the traditional hackathons. And it won’t be a “fly trap” for developer time, but rather an opportunity to cross tracks, trip into unfamiliar territory, do good, and better Durham.

Code for Durham would love to collaborate with you. Let us know if you want to help!

Sincere thanks goes out to the tireless efforts of the Hack Duke organizing team, many of whom went several sleepless nights, came to community roundtables on challenges, and spent 100s of hours in preparation. Ashley Qian deserves a huge shout out for inspiring the Code for Good theme and spearheading the entire effort. Thank you Jesse Hu, Yu Zhou Lee, Gautam Chebrolu, Bojia Chen, Logan Su, Scotty Shaw, Sara Pak, Ying Qi, Chris Dee, and Nihir Patel!

Thank you also to Mayor Bell, Justin Straight of Durham Cares, and the members of Code for Durham who worked behind the scenes and on the scene to support the effort.

Ashley Qian, Duke University, came up with the “Code for Good” theme idea after she created a CRM solution for Homeless Shelters at an earlier collegiate hackathon.
Adam J. Martin, Code for Durham Co-Captain @techfrogg

Photo Credits: Chrislyn Choo