Palo Alto civic hackathon aims to spur innovation


From lasers and marshmallow shooters to tech workshops and TED-style talks, Palo Alto's colorful and eclectic celebration of hacking had something for just about every one of the roughly 5,000 visitors who spread out around Lytton Plaza during the National Day of Civic Hacking on June 1.

But for organizers, some of the event's most intriguing and potentially game-changing bits occurred away from the spotlight, in conference rooms, break-out sessions and design workshops. Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto's chief information officer and the event's official maestro, said he was "ecstatic" about the turnout at the event and the excitement it generated in the community, particularly among the hundreds of youngsters who spent the sweltering afternoon playing with robots or exploring a 3-D printer, a laser-etching machine or the myriad inventions on display -- from a giant walking pod that Scott Parenteau put together for shelter at Burning Man to a small plastic box called Adori, which allows users to rewind and fast forward the broadcast from their car radios (Adori inventor Nathan Iyer, who is trying to KickStart this project to life, said he was inspired by his son's insistence to hear a Maroon 5 song again -- a request that cannot be met with standard radio technology).

Though Palo Alto was one of 96 cities staging hackathons, Reichental said the city's event was "10 times bigger than the next biggest hackathon in the country" and was singled out in a White House briefing.

From the city's perspective, the ideas that came out of the event were even more valuable than the toys and gadgets. From City Manager James Keene linking America's present-day democratic tensions to the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to top technologists working with the city's Chief People Officer Kathy Shen to build apps promoting a healthy community, the event offered plenty of cerebral food for the civic-minded thinker. Here are a few choice morsels:

REDRAWING THE SQUARE: For James Keene, the CEO of a city proud of its inclusive, democratic and at times mind-numbingly thorough "process," the tension between getting things done and respecting public participation is a fact of everyday life. At his TED-style talk Saturday, Keene spoke at length about the "paradoxical tension" in America's political tradition, which he traced back to the duel on the Hudson between Vice President Aaron Burr, a devout, small-government Jeffersonian, and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a pragmatic, strong-government federalist. The two represented, in Keene's view, the two sides of America's political system -- Jefferson's commitment to freedom and liberty and his belief in the wisdom of the crowds, and Hamilton's enterprising spirit and commitment to a strong government and a robust economy.

Keene presented three models of governance, each of which carries significant implications for the public. There's the triangle, a hierarchical shape in which the bureaucracy is on top and the users are "clients" of the lawmakers (think Hamilton). There's the circle, which has no hierarchy and in which users are "neighbors" (think Jefferson). But it's the square, Keene said, that "we don't pay enough attention to." That's where the public plays the role of "citizens" who help the lawmakers create the future the community wants. He pointed to Cairo's Tahrir Square, the launch pad for Egypt's revolution, and -- a less dramatic but more pertinent example -- to Lytton Plaza itself, site of what organizers labeled CityCamp Palo Alto. He encouraged visitors to use "hacking" as a way to "disrupt things" and "improve the software of self-government in our society."

"Today is more than a hackathon," Keene declared. "CityCamp itself is an exercise in self-government."

A BLEAK NEW WORLD: "Revolutions are great to read about, but sometimes they kind of suck when you go through them," futurist Paul Saffo told a group during a fireside-chat-style discussion at Lytton Plaza. Saffo's talk was titled "The Bay Area's future as a city-state." Cities, he said, define their power by the hinterlands they control, with the Bay Area's "natural environment" running up and down Sacramento River. But as questions from the audience came in, the talk quickly turned to inequality and unemployment -- trends that the technological revolution isn't necessarily helping. In the past, technological innovation created at least as many jobs as it took away and the challenge was retraining the work force for the new positions. In the modern world of robots and automation, that's no longer the case.

"That changed some time during the dot-com revolution," Saffo said. "For the first time, we were no longer making more jobs than we're destroying."

He gave the example of Facebook, which in 2011 generated $3.7 million in revenues with a workforce of 2,500, productivity that he called "breathtaking." And the employees of Twitter, which is often credited for fanning revolutionary flames across the world, can all fit inside Lytton Plaza. Saffo said he doesn't expect the trend toward fewer workers to abate.

"It's just a matter of time before we have some big IPO success of a company where it turns out that all it has is a CEO and a board of directors and no employees," Saffo said.

CITIZEN'S ARREST: Ending street crime is an ambitious and possibly impossible goal, but that didn't stop some of the brightest minds at Palo Alto's technological celebrations from giving it a hack. In one of four "idea hackathons" that the city sponsored, a group of coders led by HP focused on the topic of "resilience" and ways for technology to play a role. One proposal that came out of the discussion was for a "virtual neighborhood watch."

"The notion is: 'How can we use this new technology -- smartphones, Internet connectivity, GPS and various types of predictive technologies -- to be able to help enable a virtual neighborhood watch," Palo Alto Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental said. "There's a solution somewhere there."

The goal is to come up with a digital equivalent of "Guardian Angels," the citizen-vigilante group that was founded in 1979 and whose members are easily identified by their red berets.

"We're in the 21st Century now and the question is: Is there an appropriate and legal way to do this use the best of technology? We'll solve it. Not in a day, but in the next few months."

AN APP A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY: "How can we make our community healthier?" That's the question Palo Alto's Chief People Officer Kathryn Shen asked the throngs of people who passed by the city's booth at the Saturday hackathon. Whether it's because people care about health or because the city bribed passersby with recycled-paper notebooks, the responses arrived in droves. By the time Shen kicked off the late afternoon "idea hackathon" on health, the city's bulletin board was covered with colorful sticky notes bearing messages such as "Don't litr" and "Recucle more," as well as requests for healthier food options and more exercise. "The best ideas came from the kids," Shen said.

Solutions, meanwhile, were mostly adult-driven. Two of the most promising ones that came out of the hackathon focused on fitness. One app would allow members of the community to join competitive teams based on their interests (running, volleyball, etc.) and accumulate "social currency" for each physical activity. The "coins" earned would be redeemable at area shops or would net prizes. Another idea focused on seniors and would allow them to easily find companions -- two- or four-legged ones -- to stroll with.

"A lot of studies have shown that particularly for elders in the community, if there's a connection, if there are people to talk to and some accessible park, maybe when they can do a walk-around. That connection promotes health." Shen said she expects these apps to be submitted to the city in about four weeks.

Her favorite sticky note, she said, read, "Greet strangers."

"If we talk to each other more and make more connections, we'll be a stronger community, and we'll actually be healthier."

WHAT'S THE 3-1-1? Successful startups may get all the glory in the Brave New World of high-tech innovation, but the City of Palo Alto is taking pride in its own enterprising ethos. In the coming months, it plans to bring wireless access to prominent downtown plazas (Cogswell and Lytton). Mayor Greg Scharff also predicted Saturday that the city will bring ultra-high-speed fiber-based Internet access to all residences within two years -- a bold pronouncement given that the prize has eluded the city for the past two decades. But one new product that did come online this week is Palo Alto 3-1-1, an app that allows users to check out library books, keep up with government activities and easily inform City Hall about potholes, graffiti and other signs of blight. All a user has to do is take a photo and the app sends the GPS location of the blighted area to Public Works, which would then make the needed repairs. "Now, as a city, we're actively looking for new apps and technologies that make our cities more efficient and improve our quality of life and the 'user experience,'" Scharff said during his remarks at Lytton Plaza.

View the accompanying articles

Hackers aim for everyday solutions with hacking

Tech events aim to hack away at the gender gap

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Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 7, 2013 at 9:44 am

It seems that the City of Palo Alto has finally gotten around to recognizing the value of having thousands and thousands of smartphones in the community, and the ability of these smartphones to allow their owners to report problems with various city services—like potholes and abandoned shopping carts. Pictures of the problem can also be uploaded:

Web Link

I first suggested this in the mid-1990s, and have continued to remind the City of this sort of need almost every year since then—about 17 years to get a response from these folks.

In addition to the current interface, it seems reasonable to expect the integration of other on-line communications tools, like Skype, Instant Messenger, and Google/VideoChat/Hangouts into the City’s customer service delivery model.

I look forward to hearing about the success of this sort of offering from the City. Routinely we don’t hear much about the success, or failures, of these sorts of efforts. Given that the future of communications, and computing, is moving into the mobile domain—it’s necessary for the City to move into that domain also.

The opportunities to employ new, and emerging, technologies that are available to the City as quite large, as these somewhat ad-hoc lists suggest:

Ideas Submitted to the Palo Alto City Council About The Use of Technology:

Web Link

Web Link

Well, this is a rather large step—given how far behind the proverbial eight-ball the City has been, to date. Let’s hope that residents understand the opportunity being offered, and start to report problems around the city that too often have been ignored for too long a period of time.

I also suggest that the City Manager create a technology plan with 1-year and 5-year timelines, so that we can see what he's planning, rather than showing up once in a while with some new "goodie".

Like this comment
Posted by Kenneth Huo / Kevin Huo
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm

The Encounter of Walking Pod and a Talk with Scott Parenteau

by Kevin Huo

Bringing Maker Faire to Palo Alto/CityCamp -

“I want to make!” A little kid exclaims. Here at the Maker Faire/CityCamp Palo Alto, it isn’t just your ordinary scientific convention.

It is robot’s towering around, the technology that makes an adult dream like a kid here at the Maker Faire/CityCamp Palo Alto.

Meet the Creator ::::::
Name: Scott Parenteau
Residence: Sacramento, CA

Walking Pod-

Have you seen Star Wars? Ever think about the robots, the unthinkable machines. Wait, not machines but actual robots that move!

Well, Maker Scott Parenteau has created not only pods of metal, but a Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome inspired Walking pod.

It is a livable, innovative design for the future.

The walking pod can not only be walking, but is made of triangular steel plates that can be easily stored. As he has created an Aqua Pod, a Living Pod, but will soon hope to have a tree house pod, and beyond.

As a first time Maker for the Maker faire, CityCamp Palo Alto, he believes that everyone can create.

All you have to do is get your hands on actually try your best to make everything yourself. Plus, he recommends try cardboard first!

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa van dusen
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 8, 2013 at 11:08 am

Great coverage of a catalyzing event! The Watch+Design for Civic Impact Design Thinking workshops were also made possible by support from Leadership Palo Alto civic leadership an academic year-long program for accelerating civic leaders (now accepting applications for the 2014 class - email and KQED, presenting station for the PBS film, Extreme by Design http:www// which is incorporated into the workshops. Let the civic hacking continue!

Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2013 at 11:42 am

For the attention of Wayne Martin and other interested community members. The City of Palo Alto City Council and City Manager approved a 3-year IT strategy. It began on July 1, 2012 and its first year is almost complete. More details can be found on the IT department microsite here: Web Link
In addition, an update on the 3-year IT strategy was presented to the community and City Council on May 20, 2013.
Here is the presentation that was used: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 9, 2013 at 7:15 pm

> The City of Palo Alto City Council and City Manager
> approved a 3-year IT strategy.

Thanks for the info. Even though I have made numerous mention of this need for over ten years, it's interesting that no one from the City has ever bothered to respond to my emails with to let me know that a 3-year study is underway.

There are a goodly number of goals on the page pointed to by this link, but not much information. There are a lot of pretty pictures in the multi-media section of the web-page, but nothing like a writeup of these ideas. Would anyone happen to know what the status of the documumentation might be?

It will be interesting to hear the Council explain the various projects being proposed, since they seemed to have approved what has been proposed, to date.


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