Ideas Enact Change at San Francisco’s National Day of Civic Hacking


This past weekend, Galvanize played home to San Francisco’s National Day of Civic Hacking. For three days, more than 200 urbanists, developers, designers, marketers, students and other passionate people descended upon the Galvanize San Francisco campus to tackle civic-oriented projects surrounding open data, disaster relief, social activism, and more.

“The National Day of Civic Hacking is an annual hackathon where thousands of people around the world come together to hack local civic and social projects,” said Katherine Nammacher, a volunteer with NDoCH’s parent organization Code for San Francisco and the hackathon director. “We wanted to hack the idea of a hackathon—how else can you think about ways to contribute to your city and your civic space?”

Hackathons have existed in some form or another since 1999, becoming popular in the mid-2000s as a way to quickly develop new software technologies. While they are rooted in a more pure-development mindset, the term has since evolved to encompass any sort of focused innovation effort, be it through software development, discourse, or even Wikipedia editing.

At San Francisco’s NDoCH, projects were presented not by verbal presentations in front of the whole community but rather a trade show-style format where participants could walk around, chat one-on-one with team leads, and find a project that is a great fit for their skills and interests. Projects ranged from ways to improve open data reporting to solving homelessness to addressing gender equality in tech.

Safeguarding the Future

One of the largest projects of the weekend centered on “building the water-resilient city of the future.” San Francisco is known for its pure, carbon-efficient tap water, but it also suffers from the record-breaking drought currently plaguing California. This arm of the hackathon aimed to build a set of solutions that together could both make for a significant reduction in water use as well as help secure the future of San Francisco’s water supply.

Three projects emerged from this undertaking, developed by a total of around 20 volunteers. The first is an android app that would allow citizens and activists to help track and police water wastage by reporting things such as water main breaks, infrastructure issues, excess watering, and so on. The second is a data visualization project that would quantify and visualize snowpack and reservoir water available for San Francisco. Most of San Francisco’s water comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park, which in turn comes from melting snowpack. But it hasn’t snowed in a long time, so the project aims to ensure San Francisco properly accounts for the amount of water it will have available in the future.

San Francisco Water Data
The third project aims to help citizens understand more about their water bill. “Paying your water bill is hard to understand,” said Weston McBride, Director of Product at WaterSmart Software and Building the Water-Resilient City of the Future project lead. “You’re told you’ve used some number of units, and those units are HCF or kL or kg—it’s hard to make sense.” The project lets people upload their information and receive an analysis of things they can do to improve their consumption (and save money). “We’re hoping to build out a game-like system where people can challenge their friends to see who can save more.”

Halfway through day two, McBride’s teams had made good progress. The biggest issue holding them back was simply gaining access to the needed data at the state and city level. Governments don’t always have data available—not that they’re trying to hide it. Rather, they often have a plethora of data but simply lack the interface or infrastructure to export and make it available. “Getting that data was a challenge,” McBride said,” but we’ve made do with what we could.”

Small Scale, Big Impact

Katie Ring was always interested in finding ways to give back to her community, but after working long, 12-hour days, the last thing she wanted to do was search the internet for volunteering gigs. When she asked her friends about successful volunteering experiences, they said the most rewarding ones were those they found socially, maybe through a referral or coming across an event on someone’s Facebook page.

“I feel like people would give back so much more if it was just easy for them,” Ring said, “and if there was a platform where you could share these opportunities with your friends.” Ring is the CEO and founder of Pinch—short for People Inspiring Change. Her vision is something that’s part social network, part live feed of local volunteering opportunities or events.

“I’m not much of a coder, so I learned Illustrator two days ago to do mockups of what I want the app to look like,” Ring said. “I came here and got a team together, and we’re making huge progress on the front end and back end, actually developing the app.”

Not every project of the weekend drew a large crowd of hackers. Some attracted only a handful of volunteers, but even just that meant the chance to truly take a project from idea to inception.

“It makes it real,” said Erika Harvey, a former nurse and nursing instructor of 10 years who is currently enrolled in the Galvanize Full Stack program. “In class you write your code and refactor it later, and eventually you get the solution code from the instructor. But this is real. This has someone I’ve never met before—a professional in the field—working with me, and I have something that I have to actually prove. It simulates as much as possible of a real working environment. Whiteboarding, planning, storyboarding—it’s been awesome.”

Harvey’s project began as a way to assist homeless people and indigent shut-ins—the kind of people that are reached by Meals on Wheels—via a notification system that could push medication reminders and inform pharmacies of needed refills. The project is close to her heart—Harvey lost her husband two years ago to a medication error due to an electronic healthcare failure.

“It’s very important to me that I, with technology, use my background as a nurse to better the lives of other people,” Harvey said. “I know first hand how bad it can be when a hospital computer won’t talk to the other floors. Nothing ever jives, critical information gets missed, and bad things happen. I decided I would stop bitching about it like everyone else and actually try to exact some change.”

A Community for Change

Hackathons are very different from how most people work. A normal product development process has myriad checks and balances—things like quality assurance, testing, user feedback, and market research. But a hackathon lets you strip all that away and focus on a single target. Learn a new skill, work on a new area you haven’t explored in the past. It’s a sprint as hard as you can for a short period of time—no constraints, no distractions.

“It’s an opportunity to do something brand new,” WaterSmart’s McBride said. “Build a prototype, break something, try something wild, and then come out of it with something that either proves the concept and lets you move forward, or doesn’t. But then you can say, ‘well, we tried.'”

Civic Hacking

In a sense, hackathons represent many of the same ideals as Galvanize as a whole. Bring intelligent, capable people together to learn from one another, work together, and get shit done.

“This is my first hackathon, and it’s been amazing,” Ring said. “The space, the people you meet—it’s just this community where everyone has common interests and wants to get together to change the world through tech.” Ring hopes to get people involved with Code for San Francisco by sharing her hackathon experience, perhaps via her app Pinch once it’s up and running.

“It’s all about the community, and everyone has different strengths,” Ring said. “Whether that’s building houses or serving in a soup kitchen, or something skills-based like mentoring or building an app; everyone gives back in their own unique way.”