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Partnership Post: Global GovJam May 17-18

Sketch City is all about promoting civic innovation wherever we can find it, so we want to let you know about an event our friends are hosting the week leading up to the Houston Hackathon!

Join Design For Change and Design Thinking Houston to help solve global issues through design thinking at Houston’s branch of the Global GovJam. The event will be co-hosted by the groups, May 17-18 at Station Houston. There, the international event’s secret theme will be revealed and teams around the world will simultaneously start innovating.

The Global GovJam combines the concepts of a Global Service Jam and a Global Sustainability Jam, applying them to the world of government and the public sector. Working around this common theme, small teams collaborate for two days to innovate solutions to challenges faced by the public sector. At the end of the two days, teams will upload their results for the world to see.

Check out last year’s recap video for an idea of what you’ll experience.

To respect work schedules, the group will meet Wednesday and Thursday evenings to collaborate on the challenges.

  • Wednesday, May 17 – 5:30pm-9pm
  • Thursday, May 18 – 5:30pm-9pm
  • Station Houston, 1301 Fannin St. Suite 2440, Houston, TX

RSVP on Meetup and learn more at

Animal Tech Night Report: Puppies & Kitties Edition

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:

  • Exotic and farm animal rescue,
  • Shelters and animal control,
  • And an unguided, free form group, which ended up researching Wild dogs and public safety concerns.

With a quick reminder of the data resource, we started with a few research questions to kick us off:

  • How do shelter staff do background checks for animal abuse related crimes?
  • How do we educate law enforcement and the legal system about changes in policy?
  • What are some ways to remind people that exotic animals are frequently abused?

Lots of great notes and project ideas came out of this one.

Wild dogs research table

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:

  • Could we implement some type of obedience class requirements? Or an education requirement for the owner?
  • Maybe, if your dog is picked up in a sweep, there could be a course that owners have to take before the animal is released to them.
  • The sweeps are still infrequent–could we prioritize sweeps based on location of 311 calls, schools, parks, and community centers?
  • Could there be a requirement to microchip dogs picked up by a sweep before release to the owner?
  • What can we do to boost awareness of the Healthy Streets, Healthy Pets program?
  • Project idea: use the 311 dataset to implement some type of progress tracking program, or identify and further track repeat offenders.

Thanks to Rachel Green for providing her notes.

Shelters and animal control research table

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.

Exotic animals and horses research table

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:

  • anonymous donation line, like a gun buyback program for exotics
  • SEO war to educate people about the expense and non-glamourous side of owning an exotic animal
  • aerial photography drones that can see and count horses and correlate to plot size to determine “in-danger properties”, saving constables lots of time tracking down reports of neglect

Thanks to Bryan Lee and Chris Sica for providing their notes.

Looking forward

If you’re interested in starting or discussing any of the project ideas or questions above, feel free to suggest a new project on Github or join the conversation in Slack.

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.

What are civic hack nights?

Civic hack nights are free, 2.5 hour events where people get together to work on projects for the public good.

It’s part working, part networking, 100% good times. Here is a video from last October’s hack night.

Who attends civic hack nights?

The event is open to the public. Attendees include software developers, designers, academic researchers, data journalists, high school students, analysts of all stripes, urban planners, policy wonks, entrepreneurs, elected officials, and curious citizens who want to make Houston better through technology.

What should I expect?

Throughout the space, people will break into clusters to discuss and work on projects. Feel free to join in any discussion.

There will be brief announcements and introductions at 630p.

What does the “edition” mean?

Each month throughout 2016, we are experimenting with a theme. This month features a guest speaker and sample projects related to Sustainability. In March, the theme is Democracy.

I don’t code. Is there a place for me?

Yes! Civic hack night is a great place to network, share, and learn from one another. People are friendly and knowledgable. Even if you don’t know how to code, chances are you’ll find something to hack.

What else?

food + drink + wifi provided

This post exists because of Sarah Rigdon, Niki Virani, and Jeff Reichman.

Early Voting Locations App

It’s voting season! Andrew Douglass put together Vote Harris County, a slick web app that helps you find a place to vote. If you use it, tweet to him at @ardouglass!

VIDEO: Mega Hack Night Recap

Last night, we held a hack night with The Hacker Society and Poetic Systems at The Iron Yard Houston. It was awesome! See for yourself:

Houston Hackathon Recap

Did you miss the Houston Hackathon? Over 400 people showed up to work on civic projects with the City of Houston.

Video recap:

Social media recap:

Civic Hack Night Comes Back to Ft. Bend County

Open Houston is sprawling, just like our municipal namesake. We held our first hack night in Fort Bend County last month, and we’re coming back for more. Come join us at the second Fort Bend County Civic Hack Night on August 20.

Demographic Breakdown of Houston's Elected Officials

Demographic Breakdown of Houston's Elected OfficialsRecently, Who Leads Us released a massive dataset that outlines the gender and ethnicity of elected officials across the USA, all the way down to the county level. I dumped that data into Google Sheets, filtered it for Houston (we span three counties!), and provided an overview.

Demographic Breakdown of Houston's Elected Officials

You can view the live data on Google Sheets and comment. You can also download the full dataset on Github. We’ve already forked the repo for Houston and we plan to add in local officials (Mayor, City Council, Controller, etc.). If you’re interested in this project, let us know!

Q&A with Sarah Rigdon

Q&A with Sarah RigdonSarah Rigdon is a former Delivery Lead for Code for DC, and she joined Open Houston a few months ago. We”re really happy that she”s here! Check out our Q&A with Sarah, and be sure to come by the civic hack night tonight to meet in person!

How did you first get involved in civic hacking?

My first hackathon was the Sanitation Hackathon, a Random Hacks of Kindness event held in December 2012 in Washington, DC. I was inspired by people with a range of different backgrounds and skill sets who devoted their weekend to hacking together solutions to real problems. It was fun, and it”s fun to see the looks on peoples” faces when I wear that event”s t-shirt.

In 2013, I was fortunate to join the Open Innovation Program at NASA, and helped launch the second annual International Space Apps Challenge. Space Apps is civic hacking on a global scale, from the Earth satellite data to the mass collaboration of over 9,000 volunteers that year, and yes, I”m biased, but everyone should be a part of it. It”s usually in April–mark your calendars. Sometimes astronauts show up.

These one-off events are inspiring and educational, and the solutions produced in even a weekend are impressive. But then, I started attending Code for DC last August, and I found a community. When you can keep coming back to a hack night every month or six weeks, you start seeing progress on longer-term projects and ways of thinking about problems in your area, and how those problems show up in other cities and what they”re doing about them. There”s a lot of magical civic geekery to that.

Code for DC has a pretty sophisticated civic hacking community. What are your impressions of Houston so far?

Code for DC has an important ingredient in common with Houston: passionate people who want to help their communities. If you have that, you”re golden, and I think every place does. It”s just a matter of connecting those people to the projects they casino online love.

The difference is it”s easy for civic hackers in DC to find each other and their overlapping interests in other Meetups, but in Houston, like many other things and just by nature of the city”s geography, all of those great sub-communities are spread out. But I”m looking forward to connecting with them.

What are some of your favorite projects that you”ve worked on?

ANC Finder is a way for DC residents to learn about their most local form of government, and a good model for civic hackers in other communities who want to build a resource-finder for their local communities.

Another project I loved working on is the TechLady Hackathon, one of the only all-women hackathons in the U.S. Houston ladies, if you”re interested we can definitely start one here, too.

What are the projects that you want to tackle next?

Houston is America”s fourth largest city, and most people drive themselves to work. I”m interested in anything related to addressing that problem.

And as one of the many newcomers to Houston who wants to get to know the city, I”d like to help with cultural discovery projects like the Mural Arts Program Strategy.

Anything else you”d like to add?

Let”s do it, Houstonians! Feel free to reach out with any questions or project ideas.

Sample Projects for Civic Hack Night

Sample Projects for Civic Hack NightOur next civic hack night is Tuesday, July 29 (TOMORROW!) at Bouncing Pixel. If you have a civic project you”re working on, or you want to join one in progress, please join us! Here are some sample projects you might find interesting:

Open Data Survey
Publish candidates’ statements about open data and Houston. Project needs:

  • Data gathering of candidate info, contact info, district, etc.
  • Messaging/marketing copy about project, goals, purpose
  • Website design/development
  • Ongoing correspondence with candidates/staffers about the project
  • Experts who are willing to educate candidates/staffers about open data

#SLGT Application
Work with the Department of Neighborhoods to build a mobile app that delivers local business and event results.

Configure an instance of Foodborne for Houston.

Redeploy Councilmatic, an app that delivers alerts about relevant City Council actions.

Houston Wiki
Deploy and configure a platform for a Houston Wiki, similar to Oakland’s (or a million other examples). We can use this platform for writeathons and other events.

Redeploy EarlyOakland, a site that connects parents with early learning services, with Houston data.

Kinder Institute on Twitter
Would it be possible to break down the Kinder Institute survey into a Twitter scraper that gives a real time answer?

Mural Arts Program Strategy
Develop a strategy to create a Houston Mural Arts Program. The program should have an operating budget used to fund murals, and an outreach component used to locate mural sites. Project could have a civic crowdfunding component.

Open Houston Planning
These are projects that help Open Houston grow. We need:

  • Planning for the next civic writeathon (tent. October)
  • Planning for the next civic hackathon
  • Plan a CityCamp
  • Planning for growing our community (technology, marketing, education, etc.)
  • Editorial calendar for content & more contributors
  • Ideas for meetups, events, etc.
  • “Care for Open Houston” = social media, website, member surveys, etc.
  • Projects documenting the use of open data in the media

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