Analog Hackathons — Engagement and Ideas (without Tech)

Michael Schnuerle
Jun 5, 2017 · 5 min read

After attending the Harvard Civic Analytics Network spring convening and the What Works Cities Summit, I was inspired to bring an idea back to Louisville. I heard about a city that ran a paper hackathon, printing out spreadsheets of budget information and having residents draw conclusions, ideas, find errors, and insights from the raw data. Another big inspiration was WPRDC’s Data 101 event using paper, pens, felt, stickers, and string to do a public data workshop!

Team working on correlating map layers.

By removing computers and projectors from the equation, the event is made much more accessible and inclusive.

We wanted to do the same thing with our Data Governance group inside Metro, comprised of data folks across all departments. Not only would it introduce them to the concept of a hackathon (no one outside of Innovation and IT had ever been to one), but we could test the waters for a future, public analog hackathon.

Overlaying data layers on a map.

Our idea was to print out 11x17 transparency “data layers” that could be combined and overlaid onto a blank base map. Participants would work in teams to discover insights, solution ideas, and ask further questions.

Basically, this is simulating the first part of a hackathon: looking at the available data and coming up with a team project idea.

Basemap and Layers

For the basemap, I chose an historic area of town, Old Louisville, with a good mix of density, empty space, expressways, and local roads. Then I created 10 layers based on real data, each presented with different colors, themes, and styles (dots, polylines, polygons, heatmaps, clusters, hex bins) to expose participants to different mapping techniques and allow the overlays to be visually unique. Each layer had a name and brief meta data to give context.

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Base layer map and 10 transparent overlay layers.

Creation Process

I gathered raw data from our city’s open data portal, our GIS portal, internal databases, state data, our Waze partnership, and Tolemi. Then using either QGIS on a desktop or Carto in the browser, mapped the data, styled it, and put it on a white basemap.

On a HD monitor I screen-capped the image, and used Photoshop to make the white areas transparent. Then loaded up some 11x17 transparencies into our laser printer and printed out one layer for each group. The basemaps were printed on 11x17 paper and glued to poster board.

The Analog Hackathon

As part of a quarterly Data Governance training, Ed Blayney described what a hackathon was, showed off some past examples of successful project partnerships with city, past events, and set out the rules for our event.

Each group was to take their maps (transparencies) and make something happen in 15 minutes. Tips included using no more than 3 transparencies, and that darker on the map means more intensity.

At the end of 15 minutes we asked them for:

  • Insights you got from the maps or some thing that piqued your interest
  • Tell us a technology solution you would like to create based on it
  • What other information would you want or need to make your tech solution better?

The groups were surprisingly engaged with each other the entire time, and there was a lot of activity and idea flowing.


They reported out and came up with ideas on solutions and services, insights from the layers, and other data they wanted to see.

  1. The most pedestrian and bike accidents were where there were no bike routes. Divert bike routes around heavy accident areas.
  2. An app called Treet (like treat) that promotes restaurants with lots of trees and outdoor seating.
  3. A way to request a bike rack at certain locations, and they wanted more data on where all the city and private racks are now.
  4. Devices that could be deployed to detect the sounds of car collisions, similar to ShotSpotter, for real-time reporting and turning cameras toward the collision. They wanted data on the locations of all our cameras.
  5. Correlations between the groupings of potholes and traffic jams, and looking into that relationship.
  6. A better system for reporting and fixing sidewalk issues, maybe based on top of the existing 311 system, and they wanted more data on current sidewalk quality.
  7. Noticed many more accidents on east/west one-way streets (not north/south) and wondered about speed limits, safety, and how people move around the city.
  8. The road with the best bike lane had almost no pedestrian, bike, or even car collisions on it. Wondered if the narrowed road and wide bike path improved safety and speeds.


Run your own Analog Hackathon using the resources we’ve created.

  1. Analog Hackathon Slide Deck
  2. Map Layers Photoshop File
  3. All pictures from the event
  4. Custom 11x17 Laser Transparency Paper

What’s Next?

We invited this bright group to our upcoming hackathons, and many said they’d now like to participate since they knew what to expect.

In June we’re partnering with the Civic Data Alliance for #HacktheVille, an event for people new to hackathons.

In July we’re working with CDA again to have a smart home focused event about how to bring the city into the smart home, with city API integrations around IFTTT, Alexa, CNET, Google, Hue and more.

Later in July we are trying out an internal city-employee only hackathon around transit, traffic, and Waze.

And finally in September we will have Health Hacks where we ask how can we use tech and data to make Lou a healthier place to live.

Let me know if you know in the comments of any analog hackathons that have happened, if you have any questions about this one, or if you decide to run your own.

Podcast Interview

Thanks so much to GovEx and Eric Reese for interviewing Ed and I on his Data Points podcast!

Improve and Innovate — Louisville Metro

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