Some of Pittsburgh's brightest technological minds hunkered down in Google's Larimer offices over the weekend for the first Steel City Codefest, where they had 24 hours to create an app that would take civic data and make it useful to city residents.
In just one day, the teams came up with apps to help you find the rare free parking space in Shadyside, feed a parking meter while getting your hair cut, compare your energy use to that of your neighbors, and peruse data from various city and Allegheny County agencies, among other ideas. The 100 programmers, designers and artists gathered in the whiteboard-filled room at the Google offices looked pretty weary by Sunday morning, though the excitement among the participants was still palpable.
But there was one notable absence from the event: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
A photograph of the smiling mayor adorns the event's website, www.steelcitycodefest.org, and Mr. Ravenstahl raved about the initiative in news releases when it was announced last year. The hype paid off: The event sold out in less than 48 hours. Registrants paid $10 each to compete in the event, which was capped at 100 participants who were grouped in teams of up to six.
Mr. Ravenstahl was scheduled to announce the winners at Sunday's event, according to a news release from his office, as well as attend a "mayor's mixer" Friday evening. He did not attend either.
"The mayor was attending to other essential city business, and regrettably could not attend," the mayor's spokeswoman, Joanna Doven, said in an email. The mayor has been embroiled in the controversy surrounding an FBI investigation of the city police bureau and the resignation of Chief Nate Harper.
The city partnered with Google and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, among other organizations, to host the codefest. Tom Link, the URA's director of innovation and entrepreneurship, said the 21 teams weren't given much instruction; they were just told to take the city data that was provided to them, choose a particular issue, and create an app that would foster civic engagement and make Pittsburgh a better place to live, work and govern.
Mr. Link said the teams created "some pretty remarkable tools" in 24 hours.
The winners were chosen by six judges from the Heinz Endowments, Google, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh's City Information Systems.
The three winning teams focused on vastly different problems. One winning app, called Open Data Pittsburgh, aims to "build a bridge" between the private and public sectors by allowing citizens and communities to share information on an open data platform. (That team already has a website up at opendatapgh.com.) Another winning app, Park It, would link with the city's new Web-enabled parking meters to allow drivers to pay for their parking from their phones, meaning no more frantic, wet-headed trips from the salon to the car to feed the meter while getting a haircut. The third winner, enLightened, was conceived after the developers noted how difficult it is for people to share data about personal energy use. The app would let users compare their energy use and cost to that of people in their neighborhood, municipality or county to assess their own use.
Each member of the three winning teams won a Nexus 7 tablet. The winners, however, did not receive any funding to help get their apps out of the development phase and into the hands of Pittsburghers.
Ms. Doven said Mr. Ravenstahl "looks forward to reviewing the finalists' apps and discussing with the city's innovation office possible opportunities for future funding."
Bob Gradeck, a research specialist with Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that the creators will retain ownership rights to their apps. He said some might become business opportunities; others could be adopted by a government agency.
"If the app's good enough, it will find a way to keep going," he said.
Annie Siebert: email@example.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.