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Data / Hackathons

10 Code for America civic hacking projects you should be following

We spoke with 10 Code for America Brigades about current projects that grabbed our attention. Here's how civic hackers across the country (and in Germany) are making an impact.

The Ungentry project tracks gentrification in Boston by comparing average rents over time. (Screenshot)
Update: A previous version of this story included a project that was presented at a Code for America Summit but is not affiliated with Code for America. It has been removed at the project creators' request. An additional project has been added. (3/5/15, 1:47 p.m.)

Code for America is making an impact. While best known for placing tech-savvy Millennials in local governments to help fix civic problems, CfA’s largest project is its Brigades.

With 105 Brigades worldwide consisting of about 16,000 members, these groups are creating innovative solutions for their local communities — often becoming key hubs for local civic hacking scenes.

Here are ten projects that caught our eye:

District Housing, Washington, D.C.

Applying for Section 8 housing is a headache. Applications are paper-based and not standardized. Instigated by Bread for the City, a local nonprofit, the Brigade in D.C. tackled this issue by creating District Housing, a master application that streamlines the Section 8 process. Launching on March 6, this tool will be used by the caseworkers at Bread for the City. The ultimate goal is to get the Department of Housing and Urban Development to standardize Section 8 housing applications. As Marcus Louie, a representative from the District Housing team, explains, “We want to advocate ourselves out of a job.”

Heat Seek, New York City

Heat Seek wants to solve the under-heating crisis. Thousands of people live in apartments without direct control over their thermostat, and in cold months, to push down costs, dastardly landlords will keep temperatures low. This is illegal, but it is hard to prove in court and the data is onerous to collect. Heat Seek places free thermometers in apartments of concerned tenants. Through a mesh network, data is collected for presentation in housing court. With 50 thermostats already placed in New York City, Tom Hunter at Heat Seek says that the first court cases using their data will start in April.

Ungentry, Boston

The Brigade in Boston has watched cost of living skyrocket. Matthew Rouser at Code for Boston knew the city was changing, but he wanted hard data to know how. Ungentry visualizes gentrification creep from 1990 to 2010. The color-coded maps show the change in the average cost of rent, percent of college degrees in a neighborhood, and units rented versus owned, among other factors. Rolling out on March 31, Code for Boston is continuing to incorporate different data sets like the number of Starbucks in a neighborhood or the average price of a meal as collected by Foursquare.

Asheville City Budget, Asheville, N.C.

The folks at Code for Asheville had one big question for their local government: “Where does our money go?” They knew data was available, but they could not easily visualize the money trail. In response, they decided to create Asheville City Budget, a local government budget visualization tool. With support from city hall and the local paper, Eric Jackson, a project lead, hopes that this tool will be integrated into Asheville’s anticipated participatory budget process in 2016.

Brewing a Better Forest, The Twin Cities

Did you know that trees need more water than most municipalities can provide? Valerie Price did. Teaming up with Open Twin Cities, she helped develop Brewing a Better Forest to organize local residents to adopt a city tree. The hope is that, with a little leverage from the local brewing community, people will take personal ownership of a tree improving the Twin Cities’ green spaces. Looking forward, Price says they still need to get settled in Minneapolis. “After that, who knows? Colorado? Germany? If there’s beer and trees, we’ll be there.”

TrailEditor, Portland

Oregon is known for being outdoorsy. In that vein, the CfA Brigade from Portland supported the creation of TrailEditor. Ryan Branciforte of Trailhead Labs explains that TrailEditor is the first attempt to create a digital and pictorial database of trailheads around the Portland Metro area, and beyond. This crowdsourced approach allows anyone to take a smartphone photo of a trailhead and send it to TrailEditor. Once sent, the app takes the location from the image, creates a database entry and responds with questions about the trailhead’s vitals, including parking, potable water and bathrooms. Currently, the TrailEditor database for Portland has about 300 trailheads.

Water Level, San Antonio

Developed at the 2014 National Day of Civic Hacking, Water Level keeps San Antonio residents aware of current water table levels and any local restrictions on water use. “As a home owner in San Antonio, it’s really important to know which days you can water your lawn, because we are in drought conditions,” says Wayne Hartman, the lead developer on the project. Currently, Hartman is reaching out to the San Antonio River Authority to incorporate local government into the project and expand the app’s use.

Vote ATX, Austin, Texas

CfA Brigade Open Austin created Vote ATX to make voting easier. By simply entering your Travis County address, the app geo-fences your precinct and city council district on the map and shows the location and information of the nearest polling place (or early or mobile voting location). First released during the 2012 election and built with open government data, the City of Austin has since incorporated Vote ATX into the government’s voting information. “We hope the Vote ATX app helps people get out and vote,” said Open Austin Chair Chip Rosenthal on the group’s website. “We think this app also demonstrates the tech creativity that can be unleashed when governments release open data.”

Campaign Finance Starter Package, Hawaii

Like many government data sets, campaign finance data was available in Hawaii, but it was unapproachable. Jason Axelson, the project lead, hopes that more people will be introduced to campaign finance issues through this high-level view of the data. There is a need, explains Axelson, to make the data set more navigable and create breakouts for individual candidates, campaigns and PACs.

Trinkwasser, Heilbronn, Germany

With the help of Google Translate, you can checkout this aggregator of tap water data. Team Trinkwasser (“Drinking Water”) says tap water data in Germany is readily available but incomprehensible. For example, do you know what a “hardness level of 9” means? With help from a local paper, the Heilbronner Stimme, OK Labs developed a unified site to translate local water information for citizens. Vanessa Wormer, a journalist on the project, says they’re opening the database to local authorities to directly update the information.

Companies: Code for America

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