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Civic Hackers <3 NOLA

Code: NOLA - A Civic Hackathon

A. Smashing. Success.

Those are the three words I’d use to describe Code: NOLA, the Code Across America event hosted by Team NOLA our last weekend in New Orleans.

Ok, ok, so I am biased. But let’s look at the numbers:

In just 15 days, 62 folks registered for the event.

52 people attended our kickoff Happy Hour at Capdeville on Friday, where we released a new dataset to the City’s open data portal, data.nola.gov. Eight city staffers were in attendance, including CIO Allen Square. That night, 30 project ideas were brainstormed, and 124 pints of free NOLA Blonde were savored (thanks for the keg, Tung!).

On Saturday at LaunchPad, 25 people split up into six teams, which yielded three distinct deliverables after only eight hours of work. 56 slices of pizza were devoured (thanks to Peter of LaunchPad Ignition!).

Not too shabby, eh? Here are some highlights of the work that was done:

NOLA OpenTreeMap

Two teams worked on deploying open-source apps from the Civic Commons Marketplace, and made some great progress. A team of six worked on deploying OpenTreeMap, spearheaded by our very own Eddie Tejeda, who took a personal interest in the city’s efforts to restore New Orleans’ canopy early on in our residency. During Hurricane Katrina, more than 100,000 trees were killed, many from sitting in salty floodwaters for weeks at a time. The city’s Department of Parks and Parkways has been working to restore that number, but an outdated map of the city’s existing trees is making the effort very difficult. OpenTreeMap seemed to offer a potential solution to this problem, by providing a platform for the city, citizens, and local organizations to collaboratively update the existing information about trees in the area. The team had some difficulty integrating the city’s current data into the OpenTreeMap framework, and is a ways off from a full working deployment, but the effort is promising and has generated a lot of excitement within City Hall.

OpenBlock: NOLA

Serena Wales, our hackathon lone-ranger, worked on deploying OpenBlock, a hyperlocal news site that aggregates civic data such as crime reports, 311 service requests, building permits, and the like into a centralized dashboard where citizens can select the block, intersection, or neighborhood they care about and receive news updates about those areas. During our residency, local residents have made it very clear that they need an easier way to access information from City Hall regarding properties in their neighborhood, so Serena wanted to test the viability of using the OpenBlock framework to potentially meet that need. She encountered some difficulty integrating the city’s street data, but she plans to keep working at it, as she sees a lot of potential.


A third team worked to create a mobile website for a local public health non-profit, 504HealthNet. The organization’s Executive Director, Lindsay Ordower, made a compelling plea to the tech community at our kickoff to help her make information about free and low-cost health clinics more readily available to citizens from their mobile phones, and a determined team of five quickly assembled around her. Lindsay explained that while many NOLA citizens without health insurance do not have reliable access to the internet via a computer, a large percentage do have web-enabled mobile phones, which would allow for much quicker and more widespread distribution of this valuable information than her current paper booklets can provide. The team got straight to work and made great headway, presenting a working MVP at the end of the day, which allows users to search for health clinics in their area by location and insurance accepted. Results are ranked in order of distance from the user, and each includes a prominently-featured “call” button to encourage users to follow through and take advantage of the services available to them.


Yet another team worked to make it easier for data stewards within City Hall to publish their data to the city’s open data portal, data.nola.gov. The city is working hard to encourage the release of as much information as possible to the public portal, but requires that the data be up to a certain standard to be eligible for release. This usually means the steward of each dataset has to spend time manually cleaning up the data, which holds up the process significantly. Our very own Amir Reavis-Bey worked alongside Justin Kray of the Office of Performance and Accountability to build an application to automate this process using macros. After the one-time, initial configuration of the macro for a given dataset, the application will automatically clean the data and push it to Socrata, the platform that supports data.nola.gov, with just the click of a button. This makes it much easier for information to make it onto data.nola.gov as well as stay up to date once it is there, which is a huge step for the city’s open data initiative. Justin and Amir will continue to perfect the application, but it has already generated a lot of excitement within City Hall.

This lovefest of spontaneous collaboration and dedicated focus was truly a sight to behold. Considering this was the Saturday after Mardi Gras, we were half-expecting nobody to show up at all, and instead, a whole flock of motivated and creative civic hackers stepped up to the challenge, with enthusiasm to spare. New Orleans’ CIO Allen Square came to check out all the great work at the end of the day on Saturday, and was truly impressed with how much this dynamic group was able to accomplish in just one day.

The city’s current trajectory towards data-driven decision making and opening data to the public is incredibly exciting, and I think this event demonstrated how absolutely necessary it is for the city to continue along this trajectory to encourage and support the emerging style of collaborative and generative civic engagement we witnessed at Code: NOLA. Participants are continuing work on their projects, and in addition to the Code: NOLA Google Group, we hope that establishing a Brigade presence in New Orleans can help sustain the momentum within this community. I can’t wait to see what we can create together throughout the year, and beyond!