Last weekend was spent at the Reinvent Green hackathon (NYC.gov coverage). Hackathons are typically weekend-long charrettes to create web/mobile apps, often around a theme. This one asked us how we can make NYC greener with an app. I love the concept, but I hestitated to jump in. I don't write code of any sort any more, and it seemed lame to show up without coder chops. However, the amazing chief digital officer of NYC, Rachel Sterne, convinced me I should do just that.
Rachel and her team put together an impressive event -- representatives from many of NYC's burgeoning tech co. community, genuinely excellent food, composting, biodegradable tableware. What struck me first was how NYC's tech sector has matured from the clubby Silicon Alley of digital media to a dense ecosystem of startups and mature companies. Most of the businesses who presented, as sponsors, existed to help other companies, rather than as standalone media properties. To me this is further evidence of a maturing culture of internet businesses.
I joined up with two sharp developers, Andrew (@andrewxhill) and Olex (@tholex) to develop Olex's idea. Olex is half my age. The concept: a mobile (web-based) platform to discuss building lots in NYC. Not obviously green, but we reasoned that a first step to making our city more efficient is enabling lot-specific information exchange. The idea (inspired by Candy Chang's initiative in New Orleans, I wish this were) is that if you come upon an underused building site, a derelict structure, a neglected lot, you take a picture and post a comment or question. We used twitter to record the comments (my twitter stream echoes on facebook, so my facebook friends probably wondered what all those weird (test) postings were about). If sites start to get a lot of chatter, perhaps building owners, city planners, or neighbors will take notice, and the forces of improvement will coalesce. We called it Reinvent Lots. You can find our rough version here.
I have always loved open discussion systems like this. The challenge is always sparseness -- the field is so huge (in this case every building lot in the city) that comments are too dispersed to reach critical mass. But this kind of system would be useful. I often follow discussions about particular building sites on Curbed. How great would it be to have one place to track all articles and posts about sites, indexed with a map?
It seemed to be going quickly, but with a couple of hours left, Olex and Andrew hit some technical snags, and we were not quite ready when presentation time came. The primary lesson I learned at my first hackathon is to make a PPT illustrating the idea, and keep the app simple, although for me the thrill is actually building something in such a short amount of time.