On Wednesday, December 7th, we got together at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Center to hold a panel on some of the ways our community members have gotten started on civic tech projects, with updates on where those projects are now. The goal was to provide detailed accounts of how people like you have taken a few different ideas about how to improve their communities, united teams around shaping them into projects, and worked to make them happen. This event was presented by Sketch City and AT&T.
The speakers who shared the stage, from left to right, were:
* Jeff Reichman, panel moderator, Sketch City
* Chris Valdez, Primer Grey and its new public interest initiatives arm, PGPI
* Jo Layne Skillman, Black Sheep Agency and AIGA Houston
* Evan O’Neil, PGPI and AIGA Houston
* Naren Salem, SOTAH Smart Apartments and Design Thinking Houston
* Neeraj Tandon, Houston R Users Group, Houston Data Visualization Meetup, and Code Park Houston
Everyone shared their answer to the question, “How do you get started on a civic tech project?”
Neeraj, donning his educator hat, used a white board to answer the question, and talked about working on a project called Johns Beware. It started on our Github repo of project ideas just before the 2016 Houston Hackathon in May, went on to become one of the hackathon winners, and has turned into a larger effort of experts working to stop human trafficking in Houston and beyond.
Favorite part of that graphic: get schooled. Truth!
Naren spoke of many civic tech projects he’s launched and joined toward helping his community, including Rebuild Meyerland, a design thinking research project to help flood victims in the Houston area after recent flooding. The team followed their curiosity about resiliance and flood victims. How are they best able to rebuild and what resources help them do that, and how quickly? They studied the aftermaths of Katrina and other natural disasters, and compiled their research in a report for anyone rebuilding or helping others rebuild. If that kind of work sounds right up your alley, reach out to Naren about a collaboration with Design Thinking and Sketch City.
Evan and Chris talked about their inspiration and process for starting a new design department for the public interest under Primer Grey, PGPI. Contact them for more information. They talked about their starting principles, including: don’t look for money from the people being served, but instead seek grants, foundation money, and crowdfunding.
Everyone underscored Neeraj’s point about the power of having a subject matter expert. If you talk to someone who’s doing the work day in, day out, then you can begin a real conversation about solving problems. And you can ask real questions such as, why are you even doing this? Experts may not have the best polish on their communication skills to newcomers, but that’s where designers and communications people can do valuable work.
One example: Texas Record Bleach, a project for helping Texans expunge their criminal records that was a 2016 Tech for Justice winner. Engaging with people who were already doing the legal work of this project helped the technical team quickly produce a solution.
Jo talked about her civic project, the Better Make Room campaign for FLOTUS. If you haven’t heard, the White House chose Houston-based Black Sheep Agency to help them brainstorm and communicate to high-school aged kids the importance of going to college. The problem: more and more of this cohort is devaluing college, partly because they see startups and the Youtube famous as being full of college dropouts. Jo directed the art for a campaign to flip celebrity on its head and celebrate persistence, and encourage kids to publicly share their goals.
Jo shared some tips for getting involved in civic tech projects:
* Pick something you’re passionate about. You’re going to need that passion to carry you through the hard work.
* There’s no room for egos. Your idea may not survive the ultimate goal of the project, and that’s OK. It doesn’t matter what part of the work you’re responsible for, as long as it progresses and serves people.
* Seek out experts and people who are on the front lines. Related: don’t reinvent the wheel. Big problems have lots of people working on them. They could always use more, but don’t redo work that has largely been done. Help push through to more problem-solving.
During the audience question period, Jesse Bounds from the City of Houston asked the panel what their experience was with working with the city. Jo’s take: most people don’t know how to interact with City Hall or what the opportunities are. Neeraj seconded that meeting people half way is important. Evan added online communication is key, as well as investment in physical space. Having the time and space to learn and figure things out is often where big change begins. Houston is spread out, but for example, what if the entire community could meet on the first floor of City Hall? That was an idea the audience could get behind.
Did you attend? What did you think? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or Facebook, or in our community chat, Slack. We’d love to hear from you.
Monday, October 24th was the first day of early voting in Texas, and the last day is Friday, November 4th. That means we are smack in the middle of the only weekend available to vote early. So, if you haven’t already, go vote!
According to the Texas Secretary of State’s website, “you may vote at any early voting location in your county of registration.” So, if you’re registered in Harris County, any early voting location in Harris County will do. A list of voting locations is published on the Harris County Clerk’s website.
If you miss the early voting period and you vote on November 8th, you will have to appear at your precinct’s polling location in order to vote.
Hours of operation for early voting are published on the Harris County Clerk’s website.
October 24 – October 28: 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
October 29: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
October 30: 1:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
October 31 – November 4: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m
Check out the Texas Secretary of State’s website for an exhaustive list of options.
Check out the Houston Area League of Women Voters’ Voter Guide for all of the information you could want.
That probably depends on the location. I voted on Monday at around 4:00 pm at the Metropolitan Multiservice Center on W. Gray. As I got in line a local news anchor behind me said it was a 45-minute wait. I timed it at 30 minutes.
— Sarah Rigdon (@sarah_rigdon) October 24, 2016
The parking lot was packed, but many parked at the shopping center across the street. As I stood outside and took a picture of the beautiful, old tree that is the focal point of the entrance to the building, a man leaned out of his car window and asked how long I’d waited. When I told him, he said he’d come back on a sleepy Wednesday. “OK,” I said, “but come back!” He promised he would.
According to the Houston Chronicle’s assistant city editor, Matt Schwartz, every day of early voting has seen more turnout than the one before.
Harris County early voting:
Day 4 > Day 3 > Day 2 > Day1 pic.twitter.com/e7N1XpYi2U
— Matt Schwartz (@SchwartzChron) October 28, 2016
The hits keep on coming. Day 5 in Harris County biggest in-person vote tally yet. Overall, 452,124 ballots cast. pic.twitter.com/2XPq2JF0yn
— Matt Schwartz (@SchwartzChron) October 29, 2016
Today at around 3:00 pm my boyfriend and his mom voted in Humble, and they said the line was about a half-hour wait, but it moved quickly.
Bottom line, go vote when you can. If you’re able to vote any time that isn’t rush hour, even better.
Over the last nine months, we’ve been using themes to guide our monthly hack nights. We’ve had guest speakers talk about democracy, media, mobility, housing, sustainability, public health, and education.
In September, we dove into the topic of animal welfare in the Houston area. This was the perfect topic for memes, for obvious reasons. Thanks to Jeff Reichman for these gems.
Our goal for the evening was to come up with project ideas for future development. We continued the collaborative research exercise we did for August’s civic hack night on the digital divide. We split into groups and co-researched the topic in general and as it relates to Houston.
But first, we heard 5-minute talks from two local heros:
We also heard from experts from the City of Houston BARC Animal Shelter and Northside Dawgs. All of the experts joined the research groups and answered questions after the talks. Thanks to everyone for attending and sharing your knowledge!
The research groups were:
With a quick reminder of the data resource data.ohouston.org, we started with a few research questions to kick us off:
Lots of great notes and project ideas came out of this one.
This group started with the Dangerous Dogs Registry and a couple of questions: do people know about dangerous dogs in their neighborhoods, and what can they do about it? As they learned, there’s a big need for fresh data and a model for the data. With help from a BARC officer, they also learned about the process of managing wild dogs.
Any attack, provoked or unprovoked, can potentially land a dog on the dangerous list depending on the severity of the attack. Once a dangerous dog has been identified, owners can avoid having the dog euthanized by getting $150,000 in liability coverage. They must build a kennel and 6 ft fence, with specific locks and a special “dangerous dog” sign. They’re also required to renew a license annually, which involves personal visits by animal enforcement, but a lack of manpower makes ensuring compliance difficult. Of course, owners are also required to restrain dangerous dogs when walking them. And all dangerous dogs must be spayed or neutered and microchipped.
The group came to a good list of questions and project ideas:
Thanks to Rachel Green for providing her notes.
At the shelters and animal control table, the group covered a wide range of issues from educating people on what to do when they lose a pet to storage and sharing of shelter operations data. Lisa Rotter of the Houston SPCA served as a great subject matter expert, providing lots of details about shelter operations, relationships between animal welfare groups, and the most pressing issues facing shelter work. Here are two problems discussed and the different solutions the group came up with:
ISSUE: LOST AND FOUND PETS. Right now, staff and volunteers at many shelters dedicate a lot of time to combing Facebook for mentions of lost pets to potentially match them with animals in the shelter. This data isn’t stored in any central repository. On a related note, many shelters require in-person visits to file lost reports.
Solution: What if there was such a central lost-and-found pets site for all shelters in the Houston area? This would be different from the shelter management software used by individual shelters and could cut down on redundant work for volunteers and staff at many organizations.
This site could be updated by shelters sharing their lost pet reports, and could potentially also allow pet owners to file their own reports online. Some of the basic information could be posted publicly while more private details would be accessible by the shelter professionals. We’d also love to see some integration with shelter management software so that it’s easy to post newly found pets at the same time the shelter does their intake.
We were surprised to learn that in Lisa’s estimate, probably only around 1% of the pets that come through SPCA’s doors actually have owners–the large majority are feral or abandoned.
ISSUE: TARGETING PET OWNER EDUCATION. Increasingly, shelters have moved to a more proactive strategy in dealing with the growing number of strays and feral animals, doing public outreach and education around spay/neutering and responsible pet ownership. But Houston is large and there are a lot of different cultures and communities. Where should shelters start?
Solution: mapping where the majority of animals are coming to the shelter from! SPCA tracks the zip codes where animals are picked up, so a data project could help them identify areas where education could have the biggest positive effect. Moving into the education phase, a related project could also sort through ASPCA’s shelter animal research, which focuses on the behavior of adopters and owners, to find best practices around pet owner education.
With help from Monica Schmidt of the Houston Humane Society, the group learned that there is no registration process for owning an exotic animal or horse in Texas. We don’t know how many are out there, and we need that data.
The conversation led to talk about efficiency. HHS covers the entire contract for their constables so they spend 100% of their time on animal calls. Constables spend a lot of this time chasing down reports of horses with inadequate care or space. If they could implement ways to make their time more efficient, they’d save a lot of time and money.
Project ideas included:
Our goal for the next monthly hack night is to have an easy system for capturing all of the notes so we can quickly share them on the blog. Like last time, we had a lot of fun exploring a complicated topic from multiple angles.
We are so excited about next month’s civic hack night. It’s about criminal justice, and we are packing it with experts and specific research questions. Have an idea for it? Reach out. Please RSVP here, and bring a friend. No justice, no peace.
And don’t forget, if you’re looking for a chill few hours of coworking with snacks and a great view of downtown Houston, be sure to check out our weekly Tuesday hack nights, 5-8 pm at the Leonel Castillo Center. It’s the Northside location of Neighborhood Centers, our wonderful location partner.
Many thanks to Austin Coding Academy for sponsoring the September hack night! Despite the name, they are in Houston and several other Texas cities. Check them out if you’re considering coding classes.
Over the last eight months, we’ve been “theming” our monthly hack nights. We’ve had guest speakers talk about democracy, media, mobility, housing, sustainability, public health, and education.
In August, our topic was the digital divide. Megan Steckly of Comp-U-Dopt gave an excellent lightning talk about how they help children earn access to technology tools.
After the lightning talk, we tried something new (which is also the reason for this blog). We treated the remaining time like a collaborative work session. Attendees broke into groups and researched the aspects of the digital divide that are most interesting to them.
One of my favorite parts of the evening was talking to David Crowl about the Greater Houston Partnership’s downtown wifi initiative. This program is classified as “recreational wifi” and aims to add broadband capacity for people in downtown for a short period of time. For example, cellular service in the Houston tunnels is spotty at best. The downtown wifi initiative addresses this by providing free wifi throughout the tunnel system. We discussed how this could be a model for providing connectivity in big, cellular dark spots.
Next, we looked at innovative local programs like We Can Houston, who provides wireless broadband “zones” in underserved neighborhoods, as well as grassroots campaigns like We Heart Wifi, which aims to “build support for increased use of open, unlicensed radio spectrum across the nation.”
We also looked five years out, discussing “wireless fiber” and the impact it might have on internet choice and costs in limited access neighborhoods. And as we’re more increasingly dependent on broadband infrastructure, there are products like BRCK (from the awesome folks at Ushahidi) that can provide internet “backup” services by connecting to the internet through ethernet, 4G cellular, or as a Wifi bridge. There is also a cool public/private partnership from Facebook and the City of San Jose that can serve as a model for other cities. And Google is doing some crazy stuff with balloons.
The second research group took on another major aspect of the digital divide: access to technology and hardware. While students are more likely than adults to access the internet on their smartphones, many schools and employers also have baseline expectations for student and employee computer literacy. Without regular computer use, students and job-seeking adults are less likely to pick up the necessary skills.
This group focused on how to make donating used tech easier. Our guest speaker’s organization, Comp-U-Dopt is our best local example. They take in old computers, wipe their hard drives, and install a suite of educational tools that don’t require internet access. On average, they “adopt” about 1,500 computers a year out to Texas students.
Other ideas that the group researched included separate bins at recycling centers for technology donations, better advertising for places to donate, and options to drop off your old computer when buying a new one at stores like Apple, Microsoft, and Best Buy. They also looked at incentive programs for donating used technology and options like at-home pickup to make it easier.
Other cities and states have models that we can follow. Maine had a 1-1 Laptop program for middle school students since 2002 that expanded to high schools in 2009, and there are many other nonprofits and government efforts to increase access for students, families, and seniors that Houston can learn from.
The third research group took a slightly different approach to technology hardware and focused on the patterns of use. They began with this research paper from the Federal Reserve (2008) that shows “teenagers who have access to home computers are 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers who do not have home computers after controlling for individual, parental, and family characteristics.” Home computers also lead to fewer school suspensions.
Since the benefits of home computers are statistically significant, the group posed the question: what is it, exactly, that kids are learning/doing on their computers at home? Can this benefit be achieved by some other means? They looked at this study from 2010 looked at computer vouchers given to approximately 35,000 recipients enrolled in Romania’s public schools. The study found “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades.”
It also found “little evidence that winning a computer voucher affects behavioural outcomes. These results may not be so surprising given that few parents or children report having educational software installed on their computer, and few children report using the computer for homework or other educational purposes. Instead, most computers had games installed and children reported that most of the computer time was spent playing games. There is also some evidence that winning a computer voucher reduced the time spent doing homework, watching TV, and reading.”
Bringing it down to the local level, this group worked with Megan Steckly of Comp-u-Dopt to outline key digital divide statistics in Houston:
Unfortunately, not all research groups captured their notes. Our goal in future monthly hack nights is to report out our research on this blog.
We had a lot of fun exploring a complicated topic from multiple angles. If you’d like to participate in next month’s topic (Kittens and Puppies!) please RSVP here.
By Veronica Ramos
Editors’ note: This is a guest post from a participant at the 4th Annual Houston Hackathon, which was May 14-15, 2016. Many thanks to Veronica for sharing her perspective! – Sarah Rigdon
Allow me to paint a picture for you–it’ll give you some context. Promise. Ready? Read on.
The night before the Houston Hackathon–Friday, May 13th, scary–I absolutely regretted RSVP’ing to the Meetup page and mentioning to my friends…that I was going to a hackathon. Which, honestly, no one really understood because none of them are coders (just a bunch of yoga teachers). I had visions of a late brunch the next morning and binge watching Orphan Black on Amazon Prime. This all lasted about a second in my head. I needed some motivation. It was my first hackathon. I clicked my way over to the landing page, that took me to the Meetup page. After reading all the comments, I realized there would be a few newbies there, too! Done. Convinced. Convincing myself was way easier than I anticipated.
The next morning the early risers were a little shy or sleepy (guilty). That was an easy fix for Xela Coffee Roasters (shout out to Xela Coffee, you guys rule!), as they hand-brewed some delicious coffee for everyone to enjoy, Jeff and Sarah welcomed everyone, and excitedly played team match-makers as they introduced themselves. We were off to the races! More participants made their way into the main meeting room and started striking up conversations about their ideas. I quietly sat behind Carla and Christa (who were there to represent the Human Trafficking project) and curiously poked my head between them to ask what they were interested in.
That was the very beginning of something big. We began talking about human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking–and what the statistics are for the city of Houston. We quickly drew a crowd of interested and passionate hackers. Our project was centered around deterrence, investigation, and awareness. The next 24 hours taught me so much and just exactly what I want to share with you.
You’ll Find a New Community.
Usually, you’ll walk in by yourself and leave knowing at minimum 2+ people who are passionate about (or interested in) the same things you are. Shared passions and interest easily lead to friendships. Thank you Houston Hackathon!
You’ll Gain New Perspectives.
Hackathons are diverse. People here have different education backgrounds and are well versed in their area of expertise. You are guaranteed to learn about a different skill and or perspective. This environment is full of information waiting to be used to its fullest potential.
It Will Inspire You. Period.
A lot of the inspiring happens while you’re working side by side with your teammates. However, it doesn’t stop there. After the 24 hours is up, presentation time is upon you…the next few hours is filled with admiration and hope. You begin to see the people in the room differently and are in awe of how brilliant everyones idea is!
They Empower New Passions You Weren’t Aware Of.
There may be a way of thinking that hackathons are ONLY for those who code and love code. AND maybe they have been up until recently. I do neither of those things, currently. I’m a designer. I love design. After spending 24 hours with majority coders and developers, I found myself interested in what the developers were doing. Me? A developer? Why the heck not. You never know what ideas, skills, or beliefs will empower you to try something new while at a hackathon.
One last thing, if you haven’t made it over to the Houston Technology Center, go! What an awesome space to have access to for this event. They kindly opened their doors for all participants. I can’t imagine my first hackathon being any different or any better.
See you next year!
Veronica Ramos is a creative who has a passion for yoga and humanitarian causes. Her design projects have reached global to local audiences in government and politics, academics, and startups. In her spare time, she rides her bike and catches up with her loud Mexican family.
We had such great project submissions! Probably my favorite part of each hackathon is project presentations on Sunday, when every team gets up in front of the community and shares what they’ve done over the past 24 hours. Guaranteed goosebumps every time. If you’re ready to be blown away, check out the submissions page.
Johns Beware (working title)
This is a project dedicated to ending sex trafficking by reducing demand, supporting law enforcement, and creating awareness.
District Finder API
This API allows other applications to find all sorts of political districts for a provided latitude and longitude.
Imagine you’re a vendor doing business with an organization that is based only in one city but has 22 AP groups.
And because choosing winners was such a tough decision, we have an honorable mention:
This is a service marketplace to empower and employ local citizens to address local municipal issues.
While we’re very excited about the winners this year, every project on that submissions page deserves attention, because they’re all amazing solutions that were developed in a single day by people just like you. They were coders and data scientists, yes, but also designers, writers, project managers, and subject matter experts who showed up to put their passion into solving big problems in Houston. Does that sound like you?
If you missed the hackathon but want to get involved, you don’t have to wait until next year. You can attend one of our monthly themed hack nights–the next one is June 14, 6-9 PM at Station Houston, and it’s all about housing. Join us!
And stay tuned for more civic magic. We <3 you, Houston.
Photo credit: Grace Rodriguez
First of all, thanks for coming to the hackathon and working on projects to make your community great! Now, what should you bring?
May we suggest bringing:
Basically, if you can imagine needing it for a sleepover or a day at the office, you might want to err on the safe side and bring it.
We’ll provide all meals on both days for free on a first come, first served basis. We’ll also have some snacks, but if we run out, you might want to bring something on hand. Outside food is allowed in. We’ll try to provide veggie options but if you have any dietary restrictions, be sure to bring the food you’ll need. There is limited fridge space.
Among other treats, there will be coffee and granola thanks to local heroes XELA Coffee Roasters and Grey Gardens Granola! Houston Technology Center (HTC) has a water filter machine in the kitchen next to the main room for cold and hot water. We’ll provide some cups and a limited supply of bottled water.
HTC has a handy parking map of the area. There’s also a parking garage diagonally opposite to the HTC building (map here). Regarding parking meters, the City of Houston says, “Parking meters are enforced Monday through Saturday, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., except where pay station or posted signs indicate otherwise.” More in the City’s parking FAQ. This means street parking is not free Saturday until 6 pm but it is free after 6pm Saturday and all day Sunday.
We we want everyone to feel welcome, safe, and free to work on civic projects with teams or on their own at the hackathon and all Sketch City events. Please read and abide by the code of conduct while you’re there. If you feel uncomfortable at any time during the hackathon, please come find one of the organizers so we can help. Or email us and we’ll get right back to you: we’re firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Hey, welcome! Hackathons vary pretty widely in structure and goals. There are corporate hackathons, competitive hackathons, and educational and community-focused ones. The Houston Hackathon is in the educational and community-focused category. We’re part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which is all about making your community a better place through civic tech projects.
Hackathons aren’t just for coders! You can work on projects and have fun at a hackathon no matter your skill set. We want the Houston Hackathon to be a great place to learn, meet people, and bring your project ideas to life. Plus, thanks to our sponsors and community partners, it’s free!
If you want to meet and talk to people before joining teams, come to the morning coffee on May 14 at 9 am. Or you can talk to them online in the project threads on Github. RSVP to the hackathon and check out the website for FAQs.
See you there!
This is the schedule for the 2016 City of Houston Hackathon.
Event FAQ: click here
Submit your project: click here
Event website: http://houstonhackathon.com
RSVP link: http://www.meetup.com/sketchcity/events/226899233/
Project ideas: https://github.com/sketch-city/project-ideas/issues
Live chat: http://sketchcity.herokuapp.com
Optional: Morning Coffee
This is an optional pre-event for earlybirds and people without a team. We will have a coffee stand from Xela Coffee Roasters, breakfast from Grey Gardens granola, and a whole bunch of ideas to kick around.
Kickoff & introductions: HTC auditorium.
Guest speakers include Councilmember David Robinson, Judge R.K. Sandill, and Deputy Controller Alex Obregon. Keynote by Kenton Gray, creator of 2015 Houston Hackathon winner Rollout!
Lunch served in the kitchen. Begin work. Check the FAQ for available rooms.
Optional: Intro to Github workshop. Get your computer set up for Github, and learn all about version control for code, documentation, and knowledge transfer. Location: Judge’s Room, 1st floor, left of kitchen.
Dinner served in the kitchen.
Late night snack.
Optional: stay overnight. If you plan to stay overnight, please let the organizers know where you’ll be working. We do not provide toiletries, linens, sleeping bags, etc.
You can arrive as early as you like on Sunday morning.
Coffee & breakfast
Individual team check-ins.
Deadline for submitting your project to DevPost. Work stops. Volunteers begin assembling the auditorium.
Presentation order & briefing. Location: HTC auditorium. If you plan to present your project, you must have your project submitted in DevPost and be physically present.
Final awards, cleanup.
On March 24, join us for a hack night about technology and democracy. We’ll have great sample projects and a series of lightning talks about voting, tech, data, and the democratic process.
For this event, we’ve partnered with the League of Women Voters. It’s part of a series of democracy-themed events throughout March. More details coming soon!