Hackathon Brings Together Techies To Help The City

When we walked into General Assembly's office in the Flatiron District around 3 p.m. Sunday, most people in the room were hunched over their laptop screens, most of which were Macs. It was nearing the end of the "Reinvent NYC.gov" hackathon, an event sponsored by the city in which web developers and designers from all over the country and even Canada came to re-imagine parts or the whole of the city's website.

"This is civic participation in the digital age," said Matthew Brimer, co-founder of General Assembly, the "campus" for tech entrepreneurs which co-produced the two-day hackathon.

Since Saturday morning the participants -- some working on their own, some with predetermined, organized teams, and some with others whom they had just met -- brainstormed, developed and put concepts for a revised NYC.gov into effect. There were a few reprieves from work: a dinner Saturday night was deemed Internet-free, and the participants were kicked out of the building at 1 a.m. Sunday morning. Teams returned just hours later to continue working.

The thought of consistent work may convey images of unshaven, smelly bodies and empty pizza boxes, but the room was for the most part spotless Sunday afternoon, though we did spot a number of people sporting the "Reinvent NYC.gov" t-shirts being handed out at the entrance. Freebies also included stress balls, which were tossed around the room. One almost pummeled us in the face.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, the creators lounged on couches and drank beers while watching demos of their peers' products, as a row of judges -- city officials and members of the New York tech scene -- evaluated the sites and apps.

"The goal is to open up what we are doing in the city," the city's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne said, inaugurating the festivities.

Many of the demos showed an attempt to make it easier to find information on NYC.gov, while also incorporating elements of social networking.

Team Appleseed, which won the "best user interface" award, took aim at NYC.gov's search function.

"We fundamentally have a rotten apple," said Noel Hidalgo, 33, a member of the team and the organizer for the Open NY Forum, of the site's search.

One team came up with a widget that provides a highly accurate estimation of the time it will take to get from one point in the city to another. Another made an app that works to involve the public in legislation making its way through city government.

There were jokes: Tobias Wright, 36, a web developer for Victoria's Secret, said "it's not like that," as the audience reacted to his announcement of place of employment. There were celebrity appearances: the Ask NYC.gov team put a photo of Beyoncé along with photos of Sterne and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the section of their site offering help from city officials. We noticed another team, @NYC, used a picture of Sarah Silverman as a place holder in the mobile app for their "New York specific social network." The comedian was asking a question about bed bugs.

Another team came from Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas, that is.

"We're the crazies that came from Kansas," Kyle Gach, 26, said as his team started his presentation of a new visual design for the city's site. The company the team works for, CivicPlus, had only told Gach and his crew that they might be going to the hackathon Thursday morning.

At the end of the demos the judges retreated for a short while to choose the five winners in categories including "best user interface," "best use of social," "best use of location," "most innovative" and "judge's choice." Winners were handed trophies reminiscent of the type you might receive at a Little League sporting competition. They will have the opportunity to show off their creations to the mayor in the coming weeks.

But as the city embarks on the official redesign of their site, there is no guarantee any of the ideas produced over the weekend will be used, Sterne told us. The timeline for the redesign will be finalized in the next couple of months.

For now, the ideas conceived over the weekend serve as inspiration.

"It's interesting when you lock a bunch of people in a room and see what they do," said Michael Yap, 33, just before the awards were being announced. Yap was a member of the Ask NYC.gov group, which was voted "most innovative."

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