Steel City Codefest: Creating apps becomes civic duty

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The techies who spend a night in Google's Bakery Square office in February probably won't be breaking in the giant hammock suspended from the main floor's ceiling. To the contrary, most attendees of the first Pittsburgh-sponsored coding event will spend the entire 24 hours at the Larimer office fighting sleep and transforming government data into useful apps.

The city of Pittsburgh, Google and several other sponsors are asking local software developers to pull an all-nighter for the Steel City Codefest -- a day-long brainstorming and coding session that organizers hope will result in custom software apps to supplement city services.

Entries will be judged based upon their level of civic engagement, technical sophistication, user interface design and artistic merit. Members of winning teams will receive a Nexus 7 tablet and a chance to open source the software so their creation can be used on smartphones and computers across the region.

"Our ultimate goal is to create an opportunity for Pittsburgh's best and brightest minds to connect and use their skills to create apps that are useful to city residents and organizations," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in a press release.

The civic app building competition kicks off the mayor's PowerUp Pittsburgh initiative, which links the Urban Redevelopment Authority's office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship with local universities and the Pittsburgh Technology Council to promote the city as a national player in the tech sector.

If the overwhelming response to sign up for Codefest is any indication of the city's growing talent pool, organizers should be excited about what could be produced. The contest, which began accepting registrations with a $10 fee on Nov. 28, sold out the 100 available slots in two days.

"It just tells you that people are excited and jumped at this opportunity. The amount of genius we have here is incredible," said Joanna Doven, Mr. Ravenstahl's spokeswoman.

During Codefest, teams of up to six will be given access to city, county, state and federal data sets to create software or applications they believe can best benefit residents. A portion of the data will come from the Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System, a program out of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. However much of the data -- which includes information on roads and bridges, schools and transportation -- come from partnerships the city has formed with local, state and federal stakeholders willing to share their information for the cause.

"We're trying to have an open-source perspective when it comes to government data. Whatever we can get, we'll take," Ms. Doven said.

Although this is a first-of-its-kind event for Pittsburgh, the notion of tapping into a region's technological expertise isn't unique. Baltimore hosted the second Baltimore Hackathon, which is also a 24-hour long civic app contest, in June and New York and Iowa have apps contests that encourage creation of civic apps, but give participants more time to come up with products.

Alex Abelin, community affairs manager for Google Pittsburgh, said employees are excited for what will be the first time the office opens its doors for a sleepover. He said employees will be on hand to provide guidance and mentorship -- and to help competitors get past the brain cramps that are bound to happen at least once during the 24-hour marathon.

"They should expect a good, Google-y atmosphere," Mr. Abelin said.

Other partners include the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Bakery Square, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, Downtown-based design firm Maya Design and Carnegie Mellon University's transportation research program, Traffic 21.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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