In what the city's Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental called "a first of a kind event," Palo Alto will join dozens of other cities throughout the United States for the National Day of Civic Hacking. The event, which is championed by the White House through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, will actually be Palo Alto's second city-sponsored "hackathon," though it's the first time that City Hall is the leading driver and organizer. Last year, the downtown firms Innovation Endeavors and Talenthouse (which has since moved out of Palo Alto) led the endeavor and started what is shaping up to become a tradition.
Now, the event is set to spread both within the city and across the nation. This year's hackathon — themed "Come to Inspire and Be Inspired" — will be centered at Lytton Plaza on University Avenue and Emerson Street, a site that the city has dubbed CityCamp Palo Alto. Reichental said the plaza will host a wide variety of hands-on events for families and will feature musicians, art and hands-on activities geared to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — subjects Reichental referred to under the acronym STEAM. ("Sometimes it's called STEM," Reichental told the City Council's technology committee on May 14. "We prefer STEAM because art is such a big part of our lives.")
"We really thought about how to get children engaged and excited about technology and how to get teenagers excited about increasing collaboration between government and the hacker community," said Reichental, whose office has been gradually releasing troves of city data in recent months as part of Palo Alto's fledgling "Open Data" movement.
There will, of course, be hacking of the traditional kind — meaning "coding," not security breaches and data theft. In its event announcement, the city defines "civic hacking" as "a form of citizen engagement and volunteerism."
To that effect, the city will lead an "ideas hackathon" in which volunteers contribute solutions to civic problems and coders try to build prototypes. The innovation will center on four themes: resilience, sustainability, connectedness and health (more information about each hackathon and schedules are available at www.hackpaloalto.org.).
But coding will be just a small part of the hackathon, Reichental said. Around 90 events will take place across the nation and Palo Alto, which takes exceptional pride in its technological heritage, plans to make its hackathon the biggest in the nation. This means arts-and-crafts activities for children; coding for hackers; a "makers tent" filled with tools and gizmos for hardware enthusiasts; and a series of 20-minute TED-style talks by leading technologists aiming to inspire everyone present. Last year's event, dubbed the "Super Happy Block Party," was geared mainly toward the software crowd. This year's, Reichental said, has wider ambitions.
"It's never been done before anywhere in the world, and it is designed not just for software engineers — although they're a big part of it — but for the connection between government leaders, employees and the communities to come together to start thinking about prototyping and building solutions for the city," Reichental said.
Lytton Plaza will feature talks from 11:45 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., with speakers including Steven Zornetzer, an associate center director for research and development at NASA, who will talk about NASA's "sustainability base"; futurist Paul Saffo, who will speak on "Bay Area's future as a city-state"; and Sonia Arrison, an author and trustee at Singularity University in Mountain View, who will discuss the "coming age of longevity."
City Manager James Keene, who will give a talk entitled "Reinventing the Town Square," called the downtown event "the ultimate expression of community engagement, where stakeholders collaborate, share ideas and harness the collective spirit that ultimately is how cities will lead societal transformation in the future." Mayor Greg Scharff said the event is also consistent with the City Council's focus on "technology and the connected city" — one of its three official priorities for 2013.
"Palo Alto's leading role in the National Day of Civic Hacking supports the council's priority of technology and the connected city," Scharff said in the city's announcement. "The day also offers something for everybody, with families and the entire community able to enjoy a variety of fun and creative activities.
The event will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on June 1 on University Avenue.