Buenos Aires municipal hackathon promotes open government

BUENOS AIRES -- Buenos Aires is betting that its techies can help turn the city into an innovation hub and open the government to the masses. Can a hundred programmers do that over a weekend?
Written by Ian Mount, Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

BUENOS AIRES -- Last weekend, some 100 software developers made their way to Barracas, a blue collar neighborhood of old factories and decaying French houses on Buenos Aires’s south side, to participate in the city's first municipal "hackathon". There, in a remodeled 150,000 sq. ft. fish market that now serves as a city-run incubator for Buenos Aires's design trade, the developers feverishly programmed mobile applications that made use of newly released city data on everything from the location of current film shoots to the schedule of the BAFICI independent film festival and the salaries of government functionaries.

The May 11-12 BA Hackatón is the most recent of a slew of municipal initiatives designed to use the city's growing design and technology industries to turn Buenos Aires into an international innovation hub, and revitalize forgotten neighborhoods in the process. In 2009, the city opened a technology district in the southern neighborhood of Parque Patricios. And piggy-backing on Buenos Aires's 2005 designation as the first UNESCO City of Design (more in this pdf), the city government turned the fish market in nearby Barracas into the Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (Municipal Design Center, or CMD) in 2010, as the anchor for the city's so-called design district.

The initiatives seem to be working. Using a series of tax breaks and infrastructure improvements, the government has so far attracted 60 tech firms employing some 3,600 people to the technology district. And the CMD now hosts 70 design start-ups. But until the city upgrades its public transportation network, accessibility will be a hurdle.

The 100 developers at the BA Hackatón were brought together by a city program called Gobierno Abierto (Open Government), launched in March. As part of this program, the city set up Buenos Aires Data, a online library that now contains 49 open source electronic data sets. Hackathons have existed for over a decade -- they're often used by companies to solve difficult programming issues or by cities to address specific problems -- and the city of Buenos Aires put on its version to let developers know that the Buenos Aires Data information was freely available and to motivate them to design mobile applications around it.

At the end of the two day event, the designers of the top three applications and two runners-up received prizes from event sponsors, running from laptops to bicycles.

"We convoked programmers along with a team from government ministries to work with them, so that the programmers could know the city better and government people could better understand programmers and what kind of data was useful for them," said Rudi Borrmann, the director of information and open government in the city's Ministry of Modernization.

On the first day of the hackathon, competing teams gathered around long white tables that stretched down the central interior "avenue" of the cavernous former fish market. Developer Pablo Poza worked on a mobile application that used would allow a user to find the closest municipal bike-share kiosk and reserve a bicycle. "I didn't know anything about the open data before this," he said.

Nearby, sporting a close-cropped mohawk, developer José Escalante sat with several fellow employees at Sumavisos, a Buenos Aires classified search engine. They were competing, Escalante said, but also using the opportunity to learn how to integrate the city information into their site, so they could show apartment renters how close rentals were to police stations or transformers that contained toxic PCBs. Like Poza, he said he did not know the information was available before the event. "The program is a good idea because it makes the information available on more sites, so it's more globalized," he said.

At the end of the two-day hackathon, the top prize of a MacBook Air, an iPad, and a Samsung Galaxy SII went to the team of Gonzalo Orsi, Santiago Raffo, and Guillermo Winkler for "Mi Buenos Aires". The application would allow residents to alert the city government to problems such as potholes by taking and uploading photos via their smart phone. The application would then use the phone's geo-locator to cross reference the complaint with others made within a 100 foot radius, and then ask the user to verify them as well.

In the end, the hackathon appeared to achieve its objective of disseminating city information and inspiring developers to work with it. But it also exposed one weakness of the city's use of technology and design hubs to revitalize downtrodden neighborhoods: the continued lack of accessibility of those places. "This place is incredible," Escalante said, pointing to the remodeled fish market. "But it will only work if they improve the public transportation. It's very hard to get to."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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