Wikileaks, Anonymous, and identity thieves have made the label “hacker” something of a pejorative in modern society. So why is Alameda County putting a call out to all Bay Area hackers, asking them to come down and tinker with data at its first-ever “hackathon” on December 8 at the Castro Valley Library?
Well, the art of hacking is more than infecting a victim’s computer with malware. At its basic level, hacking simply means “to tinker with,” and the County of Alameda has joined the United States government — as well as a number of states and cities like San Francisco — in an attempt to unleash the wisdom and creativity of curious coders on massive piles of government data. The goal: create new maps, apps, and services for residents and visitors as part of a national open-government initiative.
Alameda County’s first hackathon dovetails with a national effort to unlock government data, said county Chief Technology Officer Tim Dupuis. When President Obama took office in 2009, his administration issued the Open Government Directive to all branches of government, ordering them to embrace transparency, participation, and collaboration. Since then, federal agencies have began disclosing more information under the Freedom of Information Act and coming up with open-government plans to increase public engagement.
“Openness makes our democracy stronger,” the Obama administration wrote in its annual report on the Open Government Initiative. “Where citizens can observe the workings of government, they become more invested in what government does. … A more open government makes it easier for the media and watchdog groups to expose, and therefore deter, improper or otherwise undesirable influences on policy makers. In short, openness enhances democracy by giving citizens a greater voice in what government does, and promoting government action that advances the interests of all, not just a privileged few.”
The White House created a data portal for developers to access government datasets, and the practice has spread. Last year, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors instructed staff to begin looking at ways to unlock county data. The county launched a data portal, Data.ACGov.org, using the same technology as the White House. Over the past year, Alameda County has made available about eighty datasets — from crime statistics to parcel maps to historic landmark locations — for anyone to download and hack on.
Alameda County’s online data is currently packaged in various different ways. For example, people can look at property information in the county’s parcel viewer. Data is also available in a number of formats like .csv, as well as in API format — so that coders can write programs that plug into constantly updated county data.
Where specific information was deemed too sensitive to release, the county has attempted to limit or aggregate it. Aggregated datasets from Child Protective Services and medical clinics went live last week. Parcel ownership information is only available in person, but the location of property lines can now be looked up online.
The hackathon hopes to entice 150 volunteer coder groups to Castro Valley, and spend the day conferring with county staff and mashing up the county’s data to produce useful tools, like, for example, heat maps of mosquito outbreaks in Alameda, or the areas of the county with the most Child Protective Services calls.
A big part of data is context, so county staff will be on hand Saturday to explain data to hackers who are tinkering with it. “That’s always one of the concerns: ‘Are they really looking at the information correctly’?” Dupuis said. “Otherwise it’s garbage in, garbage out.”
At a previous hackathon organized by the City of Oakland in July, a group of hackers built a location-based, mobile-phone-alert system so that users could avoid filthy restaurants, and they did it in a day, Dupuis said. No one fully knows what the coding public can do with access to once-hidden county data, but that’s part of the excitement. Hit apps could also lead to profitable business models for coders.
The hackathon also symbolizes a sea change in government thinking, Dupuis said. For example, government agencies used to hoard sensitive Geographic Information Systems data. “For us as tech folks to say, ‘Put this data out there and great things are going to happen as a result of it’ — that’s been a new way of thinking for us,” Dupuis said. “We don’t know what the community is able to create. We’re just saying, ‘Put the information out there and great things are going to happen.'”
One example is PulsePoint — a free mobile app from Pleasanton software company WorkDay that alerts CPR-trained users to nearby 911 calls for heart attacks, and the location of defibrillators. PulsePoint is crowd-sourcing Good Samaritanism to save lives. “That’s a great app, but us as a county, we probably weren’t going to create that on our own,” Dupuis said.
“We have a very tech-savvy community here,” Dupuis continued. “I’m excited to see the creativity that these teams will bring.”