Hackathon Challenges Silicon Valley Coders to Tackle Traffic Headaches

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The National Day of Civic Hacking is an annual exercise designed to draw techies into problem solving for their communities. Agencies like the VTA are increasingly opening their data vaults to take advantage of the creativity on offer. (Courtesy of VTA)

The Bay Area is hosting three hackathons to mark the National Day of Civic Hacking on Saturday: one in San Francisco, one in Oakland and one in San Jose. The San Jose event is focused on traffic.

For $30,000 in prize money, hackers are asked to crack one of the biggest headaches in the region -- or at least address part of the problem -- using open data from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The VTA is co-hosting “Hack My Ride 2.0” with Code for San Jose.

Last year, the VTA opened much of its data to the public, energizing the local civic hacking community. Code for San Jose co-founder Kalen Gallagher says, “We got a lot of excited people in the room, and they started to hack on it and build some things.”

He expects 60 to 80 people to roll up their sleeves this Saturday at the Tech Museum of Innovation.

Past projects include tracking contributions in the last San Jose mayoral race and Cycle Safe, an app that makes it easy for cyclists and pedestrians to report hazardous road issues, such as potholes.


The concept of civic hacking is not exclusive to the Bay Area, but the Bay Area is seen as a hotbed of activity, in large part due to the efforts of Code for America in San Francisco. The nonprofit organizes annual summits and embeds coders in local government agencies around the country.

What's hot this year? Not basic transit trip planners, says the VTA.

"There are already many apps out there that help people plan their trips," says the VTA on its website. "We want to see innovative user experiences that haven't been tried before."

The agency is particularly keen to see hackers make use of Bluetooth beacons, clever little bits that tell a smartphone precisely where it is so that an app can act on the specific location.

Gallagher is keeping an open mind.

"In terms of what is really cutting edge," he says, "I think we’re going to look to what people in the room come up with. Like, they could have the craziest ideas and this is a place they can explore those ideas, and actually build some things and prove them out with the help of a lot of other people."

What he loves best, he adds, is the way these hackathons engage techies in local government.

Competitors get three months to bring their ideas to fruition.