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.
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