Stepping Up: Rich Tool Kits for Tomorrow’s Civic Innovators

by Jan 5, 2016Smart Cities

Sue Lebeck

Sue Lebeck is the Chair Emeritus of the City Protocol Task Force (CPTF), an open collaborative R&D community hosted by the City Protocol Society (CPS) to help create the Internet of Cities. Sue is also technology advisor to the Cool City Challenge,  creator of InnovatingSMART, and contributor to GreenBiz.

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As enthusiastic hackathon teams gathered in Richmond, California for the second annual Meeting of the Minds (MotM) Civic Hackathon in mid-October (find the story here), the energy and creativity levels were high. “I’m very impressed at the creative applications that were directly relevant to the city of Richmond’s needs,” observed MotM Executive Director Jessie Hahn as the hackathon wrapped up.

One of the Hackathon’s major achievements was its diversity of hackers, mentors, and judges. “I’m also very impressed by how diverse the hackathon was – we had a real mix of genders, races, ages, ability levels, and a few teams who have never been to a hackathon before,” including one such team whose robust embodiment of the hackathon spirit helped them take home the top $5000 prize.

All teams took home some serious applause and creativity cred – as well as prototypes of apps serving a wide range of citizen audiences. All the apps served to mend some of the socio-economic holes in our equity-opportunity urban fabric.

But even as the story of community-based fitness, garden exchanges and labor match-making was unfolding, so too was another story making its game-changing potential known.

Building the Workforce That Will Create the Future

The parallel purpose of hackathon events is to expose and educate tomorrow’s innovators to rich technology platforms – platforms which may help them succeed in the moment, but also inspire and empower them into the future. Indeed, hackathons can help build skill sets to develop the technology workforce for the future.

Alex Donn, the hackathon director, describes the purpose of hackathons: “By bringing in educators and developers, everyone interested in helping out, we can cultivate the next generation of developers, thinkers and doers.” The civic-minded and sustainability-motivated makers, developers and serious creators who gathered were greeted with a wealth of hardware, software, middleware and data resources to ensure they would have the tools they’d need.

“You have to create the context for success to happen,” explains Colin Brown who provided the hack kit from World Programming. “The teams we’ve spoken to and coached now seem to have a better understanding of how to use data.” And as data science and analytics become key to a rich and growing realm of application, creating opportunities for this kind of technology exposure and workforce mentoring is increasingly important.

The “hack kits” provided, several of which are described below, represent powerful examples of the emerging toolkits designed to turn today’s hackers into tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Just as importantly, the hack kit mentors were among the quiet stars of the show.

Aidoo Osei from Qualcomm provided a hack kit and sponsored the Hackathon (with Microsoft). In his mind, the Hackathon served a larger purpose: “What’s important is the process of getting very smart individuals talking to very smart people in the community– bringing people together to start a dialogue.”

“People who show up to hackathons self-select for being excited and enthusiastic, so they are the exact right people to be here,” observes Dan Lopez, engineer with hack kit provider OSIsoft. In addition to tools, these hack kit providers bring experience-based knowledge and an intellectually generous attitude, which is key to providing the experiment-friendly, failure-tolerant setting necessary for innovation to flourish. “We know humans need encouragement, intellectual vitality, and to try things out in a safe space,” reminds Lopez. “People here will listen, and will look at your ideas and give feedback as if it’s viable – because in this space it certainly is.”

Creative Cornucopia

The following hack kits were provided for the MotM 2015 Civic Hackathon, representing a rich and complementary range of capability for the hackers.

  • Qualcomm DragonBoard:
    Qualcomm brought a number of DragonBoard™ 410c development boards to teams participating in the hackathon, which feature advanced processing power, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity, and GPS, all packed into a board the size of a credit card.
  • OSIsoft PI System:
    OSIsoft provided a web application programming interface (API) to their real-time data infrastructure software, the PI System, which they’d installed in the Microsoft Azure cloud. This gave participants real-time access to streaming data that the PI System was collecting, which, for this hackathon, came from a simulated city, including data from assets like building electricity meters, air conditioning equipment, a local weather station, and solar photovoltaic arrays. The PI Coresight visualization tool was also made available to hackathon participants to allow them to investigate and explore the live city data for planning their applications.
  • World Programming WPS:
    World Programming provided its WPS software (pronounced “wips”) and support for SAS language statistical analysis programming. It also provided civic-oriented data sets from Socrata, categorized into Economic Development, Public Spaces, Health and Environment, Sustainability, Digital Divide and Education.
  • Other:
    • Gimbal, formerly a Qualcomm company, provides a comprehensive location and proximity-based mobile engagement platform. The Gimbal Series 10 Proximity Beacon, provided to the hackathon along with a software development kit (SDK), is battery-powered and fits in the palm of your hand.
    • SeeClickFix is a platform and API that leverages a geo-polygon based tracking system to route publicly documented neighborhood requests to local governments and neighbors who can assist and support.

Read on for up-close perspectives from my conversations with MotM kit mentors from Qualcomm, OSIsoft and World Programming.


Kit mentor Anthony Di Leva works on the business development side of the Qualcomm Smart Cities and Industrial Internet team:

  • “This is part of our IoE (Internet of Everything) 2.0 initiative. IoE 1.0 is centered around the home, IoE 2.0 is everything outside the home – smart cities, industrial internet, large-scale applications – industries with a lot of capital and a lot of need.
  • “The Dragonboard hackathon kit was put together by the Qualcomm development network community, to provide the core building blocks of a hackathon, centered around the new Dragonboard 410c. It was recently used at the Techcrunch hackathon, so this is its second event — we’ve only had them for a month.
  • “We built a top-of-the-line, high connectivity product and put out a very affordable, very compact, high powered processor product for the community. We then went online and found 30 of the most useful sensors and devices that can connect to the Dragonboard to really highlight its power and capabilities.
  • “It’s a computer in a box, everything is there — monitor, keyboard, sensors; it runs Android and Linux, so it’s versatile for mobile or PC-compute environments.
  • Our colleague Dan from OSIsoft has been hacking it up to be a real commercial application, and really showcasing the processing power [of its] impactful commercial capability.”


Dan Lopez is an engineer at OSIsoft in their Systems Engineering group:

  • “I got involved [in cities] when someone said, ‘OSIsoft, can you work in baseball stadiums?’ We said shoot, we know we can do data collection and analysis and deliver incredible value in oil and gas, in pharmaceuticals, in metals and mining, but we hadn’t done stadiums before, so it was up to the team that I’m with to get involved with that and see.   Brilliant people over at stadiums are using data in some really incredible ways – to maintain LEED certification, making sure that that a huge building is using the bare minimum of electricity, water and gas that it needs to, and not making a huge dent in the [resources] of the city.
  • “We’re doing a lot of work with cities. We’re looking at the health of radio transponders on city buses.   We can find you the coolest room in the public library. Cities are a perfect use case for us.
  • “OSIsoft is designed to be completely agnostic, independent of the data source and data use. We can connect to about 400 different protocols out there; I’ve worked on everything from smart meters in a baseball stadium, to pumps that inflate chicken breasts with saline solutions before you freeze them, to temperature sensors that you use in a brewery. And all of them speak different machine protocols.
  • “OSIsoft ‘only’ does three things: we collect data; we manage and enhance it; and we deliver it – to a program, to a third party software suite, to a visualization. We contributed our Web API to the hackathon.   We’ve been getting our software more and more compatible with third-party software suites.
  • “OSIsoft can get a multitude of things speaking to a standard.   We make sure our data is compatible with HANA, SAS, PowerBI, Spotfire, Tableau, AZURE Machine Learning, ODATA and more. These folks have created commonly used, in some cases, de facto standards.
  • On cities and agencies adopting data standards: [it’s] “ going to overcome a huge barrier…That is time wasted, time you’re not using the data.”

World Programming

Colin Brown works with World Programming, a UK based data science organization that’s been around since 2002:

  • “World Programming’s product (WPS) is a data science layer. WPS provides a coherent toolset from start to finish from gathering, combining, analysing and putting into production solutions that are needed for IoT and for teams involved with handling, analysing and getting value out of smart city data.
  • “As a data scientist, there are two challenges – visualization and finding meaning in Big Data.  Visualization (or business intelligence) starts with a hypothesis.  Finding meaning in Big Data is about discovery, trying to seek insights – the needle in the haystack, the trend.   With WPS, you can do discovery quickly.   Then you can move on to production application of what you discover.  We help bridge discovery to production.
  • “Data science is going to become more core to urban sustainability as states, government, and cities start to organize around data.  As the IoT (Internet of Things) kicks on, there will be more data coming in from devices as well….The role of the tool is as an enabler, to help developers to think differently [about data] will grow too.
  • “I’ve run Enterprise Architecture teams in the past, people who define language and taxonomies for a business; the challenge most people have is that everyone defines their own taxonomy unless you’re lucky enough to work for an industry that has a standard set.   Where you have an emerging market as in the IoT, it will be a matter of time before those taxonomies become consistent.  In the meantime combining multiple disparate sets of data will be required.

“WPS can work with any data. Socrata is the data [source] the hackathon developers wanted us to focus on.  The organizers of the hack chose the themes, and pulled the data that was relevant to the challenges in the community.

  • “WPS allows everyone with some basic skills in programming, to achieve results a lot faster.  With one program, you can combine multiple [data-access] languages, and access multiple platforms in one WPS program – you can do this in the language of SAS and also R (a statistical language), and also SQL. We are putting Python into the platform in the near future, so you can integrate Python into our product, and run python scripts.
  • “WPS is an open platform, we help save significant money, and we provide a much needed alternative in the market.   Most importantly we help get the data out of its silos.   [In these ways] WPS should be attractive to cities.”

Until Next Time

Developing and supporting the innovative problem-solving spirit resident in local communities is invigorating, productive and enjoyable, and represents a potent dimension of any economic development strategy.

“I’ve been excited to see this event evolve over the last month and a half”, reflects Qualcomm’s Di Leva. “The community involvement from the citizens of Richmond was the intent and has been great, getting around common problems and common solutions that really service the cities and the citizens of Richmond.”Observed WPS’ Brown, “There is a lot of cultural development going on here [in Richmond]; giving people access to hackathons is a great way of opening new options in life.”

Hackathon organizer Donn urges this to keep going: “This is a collective work between the local city government and Meeting of the Minds and developers — people interested in helping out local communities. It’s important that we continue with these activities.”

OSIsoft’s Lopez agrees this is just the beginning: “Yes, we had to stay up a little bit late, and work over the weekend. But this is something I genuinely enjoy doing. I’m really looking forward to the next one!”



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