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SpoCode seeks ways to access, use government data

Sun., Nov. 3, 2013

To the untrained eye, the code on Mark Simonds’ computer is a foreign language.

There are parts Simonds doesn’t entirely understand himself. He points to a pre-programmed section he snagged online, designed to geolocate a person from their cellphone.

“It’s like calculus or something,” he said, squinting at the block of code.

But when he opens the program on his smartphone, the program becomes a simple screen that locates the user, finds where the closest traffic camera is and displays the feed from that camera.

Simonds and his project partner Dan McGee, general manager of Banner Furnace and Fuel, joined about 25 others for this weekend’s SpoCode hackathon, a collaborative programming marathon held at the Spokane Fire Training Center in east Spokane.

Groups huddled around laptops, developing applications using public data from government sources, including the city of Spokane, and making it more accessible to the average computer or smartphone user.

“We’re taking stuff we found from a government agency and making it better,” Simonds said.

The 24-hour event began Friday and ended with presentations Saturday afternoon. Some of the programmers camped out at the location overnight, leaving a stack of empty pizza boxes and a full recycling bin of soda and Red Bull containers behind.

Participants presented a range of projects they created, including a graffiti locator, a database of historic places in Spokane and a map of fruit tree locations throughout the city.

Organizer Brett Noyes said it’s a challenge to organize a hackathon in Spokane as opposed to Seattle. Between the smaller population and fewer technology companies, finding programmers to participate is difficult.

“It feels like we’re in the early stages of this in Spokane,” he said.

But a smaller crowd isn’t always a bad thing, said Chris Metcalf, of SpoCode sponsor Socrata. Socrata, based in Seattle, is dedicated to creating new ways to access and use open government data. Programs like SpoCode fit that mission while promoting a tight-knit group of programmers, Metcalf said.

Though similar events in Seattle or San Francisco may draw larger crowds, they often become more about competition than promoting a community, he said.

“It’s hard to build a community with 1,000 people,” Metcalf said.

Officials from the city of Spokane also attended the hackathon to judge the programs. City Councilman Steve Salvatori and city IT Director Mike Sloon saw an opportunity to pair the city’s mission of providing open and accessible data to the public with the talents of local programmers.

Mayor David Condon, who also visited, said it’s important to engage the community with projects like the products of this day’s work.

“The citizens own the data,” he said.

The city provided programmers with data such as public works information, Spokane Transit Authority routes and city payroll.

“If we can get an environment here where some of these are feasible and create an open dialogue, we could do something good with it,” Sloon said.

Editor’s note: Spokesman-Review online developer Dan Gayle was one of the organizers for SpoCode.

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