Outside Palo Alto, the phrase "civic hacking" may sound like an oxymoron.
But here in the land of Facebook millionaires, the famous HP garage and Stanford geniuses, it's a cause to for the city to promote and celebrate. That's what the city did Saturday, when it invited the technolophilic masses to a first-of-its-kind National Day of Civic Hacking, a daylong celebration of science, technology, design and innovation.
Thousands of people spread out across sections of University Avenue, High Street and Emerson Street for a downtown gala packed with robots, electric cars, hackathons, design workshops, TED-style talks, chalk art and a "maker faire" where laymen and children created gadgets of their own. While futurist Paul Saffo was giving a fireside-chat-style talk about the rising role of the city-state to a small gathering at Lytton Plaza, children were making "marshmallow shooters" out of light plastic pipes in a tent by the Stanford Theater.
For city officials, who organized the event, it was also an opportunity to promote civic engagement, celebrate the city's history of innovation and leverage the brainpower of the assembled hackers to create some useful government tools. The city is one of 96 nationwide that held "civic hacking" events as part of a campaign championed by the White House. Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental said Palo Alto's event is "certainly the biggest event in around country."
"This is the perfect place to do it," Reichental said. "It's in our DNA that we're able to have this kind of an event."
This is the second year in a row that downtown Palo Alto has hosted a hackathon, though the two events bore little resemblance. The 2012 event was spearheaded by the downtown firms Innovation Endeavors and Talenthouse (which has since left), with the city playing a supporting role. It was centered on two buildings and one block of High Street and its target audience was the coder community.
This year, the City was in the driver's seat and the event was both larger and more family oriented. The Palo Alto Art Center and the Pacific Art League had art booths, while the TechShop tent offered children a change to create lasers etchings. Then there were the robots, the laser printers and a giant steel pod that looked like something out of Star Wars.
Mayor Greg Scharff, who cruised around "CityCamp Palo Alto" on a Segway, welcomed the visitors at Lytton Plaza by highlighting Palo Alto's role as the leader of innovation, calling the city "the spiritual and creative engine that drives technological change throughout the nation and the world." He also mentioned the city's ongoing technological initiatives, including its installation of WiFi spots at local plaza and its exploration of a citywide ultra-high-speed Internet network. He predicted that the city will find a way to hook all of its residents up to high-speed Internet within two years.
"As a city we're actively looking for new applications and technologies that make our city more efficient and improve and quality of life and the 'user experience,'" he said, with the "user" in this case meaning "citizen."
To that effect, the city used the event to publicly unveil its latest mobile app, Palo Alto 311, which allows users to take a photo of a pothole or a crack in the pavement and then automatically sends the picture and the GPS data about the blemish to City Hall.
The event also included seminars, design workshops and traditional "hackathons," coding sessions in which hackers (meaning "coders" or "software engineers") try to create a prototype for a product. The themes for these hackathons are resilience, connectedness, sustainability and health.
One workshop focused on "Women and Technology" and included talks on narrowing the gender gap in the male-dominated hacking community. The session was followed by a hackathon at the AT&T Foundry on Homer Avenue, where dozens of coders the vast majority of them female formed teams and worked new apps.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, Joaquin Albornoz was inside the "C is for Craft" tent, drawing the world inside of a computer with crayons. Albornoz, 6, was at the hackathon with his family, who drove up from San Jose.
"He's really been interested in robots lately," said his father, Carlos. "We thought we'd come by."