Mining Data for the Community’s Good

Co-sponsored by UM, Hack for Change: Miami was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking.

Coral Gables (June 17, 2013) — Urbanist and architectural illustrator Brian Lemmerman has had two bicycle accidents on South Florida’s traffic-clogged roadways, escaping serious injury in both incidents. Determined to make local streets safer for cyclists, Lemmerman came up with an idea: a smartphone app that displays maps of Miami-Dade County’s most accident-prone streets.

“It would pinpoint hot spots and allow users to submit positive and negative events to a database during or after a commute using a combination of text and photos,” Lemmerman explained.

His bike-safety app was just one of the many ideas proposed at a recent University of Miami-sponsored event aimed at using technology and government-released data to solve community ills.

Hack for Change: Miami, held June 1 and 2 at LAB Miami in Wynwood, brought together some 217 people from 8 to 80 years old—civic leaders, computer geeks, entrepreneurs, software developers, college students, county officials, and even elementary schoolers—all of them working in teams to improve the neighborhoods and towns in which they work, live, and play.

Marilyn Stephens, a data specialist with the U.S. Census, shows UM law student John Walter how to aggregate Census data on his smartphone.

Marilyn Stephens, a data specialist with the U.S. Census, shows UM law student John Walter how to aggregate Census data on his smartphone.

During two days of brainstorming, data analysis, and discussion, teams came up with tech-savvy solutions to more than 20 federal and local government challenges, presenting their ideas on the final day of the event. Among the projects showcased: an app that combines flood zone data and real-time information from the National Weather Service to show neighborhood streets that are flooded, allowing drivers to avoid those areas; an interactive tool operated by hand gestures that provides information on areas where contaminated water has been reported; an app that allows citizens to report the need for certain municipal services such as trash collection and the repair of potholes; and a 3D-printed sculpture that uses U.S. Census data to show income disparities in Miami.

“We had great citizen participation with a diversity reflecting our city,” said Richard Bookman, senior advisor for program development and science policy at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, who helped organize Hack for Change: Miami.

The Knight Foundation-supported event was one of 95 hackathons that took place all over the country as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. “With data coming in from around the country, it now appears that we were the second-largest single site event after Los Angeles,” said Bookman. “Chicago had three different events totaling more people than the Miami site, but none those three events, separately, had more than 125 attendees.”

Lemmerman, a 2009 graduate of UM’s School of Architecture, attended both days of Hack for Change: Miami, going to the event with his fiancé, Naomi Ross, who participated as an AmeriCorps member through UM’sOffice of Civic and Community Engagement. His idea for a bike-safety app grew out of a perception that Miami-Dade’s streets are dangerous for cyclists. Lemmerman’s app, which is still in the development phase, would identify hot spots where accidents occur. To power it, he needs the dates and locations of bike-versus-automobile-related accidents occurring within county limits as well as other information such as bike commuting distances, the time of day traveled, and acceleration and deceleration rates—data that exists but “is not easy to find,” he says.

MapMyRide and Garmin Connect, two of the suites of apps for mapping bike routes and other outdoor activities, already have collected such information. Lemmerman, 26, is exploring the possibility of “connecting” with those companies to access the data he needs to power his app. In the meantime he is making do with the data he has to begin developing his app. City of Miami officials have provided him with some information, and he hopes to acquire other data from the county.

Some projects presented at Hack for Change: Miami came to fruition. Miami Wiki, a community-driven website on local knowledge about the city, is now double its size after a team of participants wrote several new pages for the online resource. Sawsan Khuri, director of engagement at UM’s Center for Computational Science (CCS) and an assistant professor of computer science, wrote entries about CCS, nonfiction books on Miami’s history and culture, the village of Palmetto Bay, and local restaurants. Her 11-year-old daughter, Catherine Maunder, wrote pages on the Girl Scouts and local restaurants and venues that could be part of a “Perfect Day” Miami itinerary for a girl her age.

Even Khuri’s 8-year-old son, Peter Maunder, contributed, sharing animations he built using Scratch, a programming language and multimedia tool that can be used for a range of educational and entertainment projects. “He had never used it before,” said Khuri, “and his command of it after the weekend highlights the ease with which we can fill the gap in computational education for students of any age.”

Ashley Arostegui, a program coordinator in the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, participated in a discussion about injecting mentorship into schools to encourage students to think about graduating, attending college, and acquiring skills to pursue their chosen careers. “This [discussion] was less tech-focused, but we did talk about what we would need technologically beyond a simple website or signup infrastructure, and we were thinking it would be great to have an algorithm that would help match students to particular mentors,” Arostegui said.

The Office of Civic and Community Engagement, the UM Office of Government Affairs, the Center for Computational Science, the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, Frost School of Music, Miller School of Medicine, and School of Communication co-sponsored and assisted in organizing the hackathon, which may prove to be a precursor to more initiatives on how technology can be used to solve community and social problems.

Bookman, who recently returned from a civic hackathon in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said it is important to keep the momentum going. The fledgling Code for America Brigade plans to hold civic hacking sessions every Monday evening at LAB Miami, the Knight Foundation-funded innovation campus that hosted Hack for Change: Miami. Meanwhile, Bookman is continuing his work with the national organizing group to start planning for next year’s National Day of Civic Hacking. He hopes the recent two-day event will foster discussions on how to include or integrate “civic hacking” as an interdisciplinary, team-based activity across the curriculum of all UM schools and colleges.


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Richard Bookman, center, senior advisor for program development and science policy at the Miller School of Medicine, leads a discussion on how to increase government efficiency through coding. From left, Brian Lemmerman, Sawsan Khuri, Bookman, Jimmy Henriquez, and Aleyda Mejia.

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