Second Summer of Smart Hackathon Tackles Buildings, Transportation and Sustainability

GAFFTA Chairman Peter Hirshberg and Mayoral Candidate and San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu chat with the team. The team, including MIT SENSEable Cities Lab research associate Christine Outram, created an app that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces


Building data. It’s a small thing, but what if the buildings where we live, work and play were able to show us how they work? How much energy they use, what their carbon footprint is, how they compare to the building next door? Building data. It’s also a huge thing, a salvo in the data revolution that rages across the U.S. and brings the hope of transparent, agile and accountable government.

San Francisco has always been a proving ground for small ideas that blow up to impact the American landscape in ways no one could have predicted, from the hippies in the 1960s to the tech boom that is still ongoing. The current movement is challenging coders, data artists, designers and makers to find, create and illuminate available data to build apps, widgets and games to make the city better — to use civic hackathons to create experiments that have the potential to change the face of city government.

This puzzle is the basis of the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts (GAFFTA)’s Summer of Smart program, a three-month experiment in urban innovation that is bringing together developers, designers, city officials, urbanists, journalists, community members, and more to see what happens when you give ordinary citizens the tools to create change. GAFFTA, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that funds and creates experiments that build social consciousness through digital culture, along with the San Francisco Department of Technology, has created a living laboratory for a new model for how citizens and government can work directly together to address urban issues. It’s called Democracy 3.0, and it’s not limited to the West Coast anymore.

GAFFTA’s second urban hackathon was held over the weekend of July 22 to 24, and focused on sustainability, transportation, and energy.

One eye-opener for the 100 passionate citizen who showed up on Friday night was that the transportation sector is awash in data, (though it’s often not being used correctly or at all by the actual transportation agencies) while building data is such a morass of different formats and metrics that it’s impossible to work with.

“The reason we are talking about transportation and buildings is that the two of them account for a huge percentage of our country’s energy bill,” said Peter Hirshberg, chairman of GAFFTA. “In a city, buildings consume 40 percent of our energy bill, and about 30 percent of that could be saved if we knew what was going on. The problem is that we’re a little bit data blind. There’s just not that much information about buildings.”

In order to focus energy and attention on that problem, GAFFTA brought in experts to talk to the hackers about transportation, energy efficiency and city government.

Di-Ann Eisnor, a GAFFTA board member and executive at WAZE told the group about the how crowd-sourced traffic data is providing far more real time information about what’s happening on our roads than was ever available from government, sensors, or helicopter traffic services. “When you turn gathering traffic data into a game, and thousands of smart phone users play along, you are able to see what’s going on and manage traffic as never before,” Eisnor said. In keeping with the art spirit of things, she showed GAFFTA created visualizations of LA traffic data from the recent Carmageddon weekend.

Brandon Tinianov, CTO of Serious Energy spoke of buildings as machines full of data and manageable, but too often lacking the software layer and systems to allow building managers to do anything about it. His firm is a leader in providing industrial solutions to the problems, but he too called for a building data movement — to create awareness, open up more data, and to help cities understand how much better and more efficient buildings could be when attention was focused on working with the right data. “We can map bikes, trash, cars, but we can’t map buildings,” he said. “No one in this room knows what this building consumes or if it’s efficient.”

By Sunday evening, the seven teams had created projects that, in some ways, used available data to highlight what was missing. One team used available data to create a widget that will allow tenants of commercial buildings to compare sustainability factors such as energy use, waste generated and water consumed. Another group used data supplied by Muni to build an app that would allow line supervisors to use the same information that riders have to make on-the-fly decisions about trains and buses. Another takes information from building permits available on to create a picture of green building retrofit history in San Francisco. All in all, the teams were about evenly split between transportation and buildings, somewhat surprising given the difference in the amount of data that was out there between the two.

“This weekend was particularly interesting, because after searching for data, it became very clear that the transportation sector is way ahead of the energy sector, and part of this is demonstrating useful applications for the energy data: something I believe the weekend achieved,” said Christine Outram, research associate at the MIT SENSEable City lab. Outram and her team created, a site that will allow tenants to compare commercial spaces on energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste disposal, the walkability, bikability or proximity to public transit and occupant ratings using data from LEEDS certification, Energy Star, and Public Open Spaces. “The story of data needs to be told, because data provides value and insight. We have seen this happen in the transportation sector, where mobile applications and data analysis have resulted in a more convenient, efficient, and flexible transit system that doesn’t require the roll-out of additional infrastructure or vehicles. This is not enough though, we must continue to tell the story of data so that other sectors begin to understand the value proposition.”

Building data, on the other hand, is a confusing mess of formats, standards and metrics. In February, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee signed the Existing Commercial Building Energy Performance Ordinance, which requires owners of commercial buildings to determine how much energy a building uses and make that data available, but it doesn’t apply universally until 2013. Even the data that is currently available isn’t always in the same formats, a problem tackled by the North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in their PAP10 project to create a data standard for energy usage.

“Government data is critical for the public in terms of transparency and accountability,” said Jay Nath, director of innovation at the San Francisco department of technology. While the projects that came from the weekend were all very good, Nath thinks they could have been even better if the data was there. “Data is the raw material for much of the work that happens at hackathons. Our goal as government is to increase access to data that is consistent with our privacy and security policies. Events like this can spur demand for data that can raise awareness within government.”

The other focus of the weekend, transportation, had almost the complete opposite problem: the groups were swimming in data, but the public transit agencies in the city don’t have access to it, or don’t actually use it. Emily Drennen, a current intern with Muni, decided to use the weekend to fix Muni: “You know, a small, manageable project.” Her idea was originally to find a way to allow train operators and line supervisors to access the same information that riders have, on, and use that data to make on-the-fly decisions to solve bunched up buses or clogged muni trains. But when they went down and actually talked to some of the Muni employees, it turned out that supervisors often didn’t even know when there was a problem, much less have the ability to solve it on the fly. “The people who are in charge are basically on their radios going ‘Roger roger’ and trying to get the information across,” said Matt Kroneberger, a Berkeley graduate student.

The Summer of Smart hackathons have drawn the attention of people across the city, from mayoral candidates to tech superstars and San Francisco-based corporations. Candidates Phil Ting, Joanna Rees and David Chiu stopped by the GAFFTA headquarters and all said that they want the innovative spirit of the hackathons to live on in their administrations, which is exactly what Hirshberg hoped would happen when he came up with the idea.

“The insight for summer of smart, for me, began when GAFFTA Executive Director Josette Melchor and I were talking to supervisors and mayoral candidates about open data and visualization and they looked at us and said, ‘well we’ve heard about that, but how does gov 2.0 help make a better city, make people be more healthy, solve social problems or make the trains run on time? What does it do for our voters?’,” Hirshberg said. “I realized that it was a classic case of us geeks being excited about something and the business users not having any idea what we’re talking about. This is a classic problem in technology marketing So I was really interested in making the people who are running for office clients for real live projects. If they said ‘these are the priorities,’ that would turn the geeks into people who actually understood what the real business use was. By making it a part of the campaign process, we’d create a lot of awareness. We’d be a laboratory for ideas that candidates might want to adopt – ideas worth stealing.” Candidate Phil Ting echoed this when he said, “When you are in a campaign, you are constantly looking to push the envelope and challenge yourself as well as the city and you’re looking for innovative ideas. In a campaign, it’s like policy entrepreneurship. Candidates, especially those of us who are running for offices we haven’t held, we’re looking to identify issues that we can champion and that we can work on and I think that’s happening a lot in this campaign.”

While that sounds idyllic, you might be forgiven if your experiences with city government have made you a bit cynical. However, in this case it’s actually working. Remember that Muni app, created in a weekend by seven regular citizens? On Sunday evening, the groups presented their apps to an audience including Melanie Nutter, Director of the San Francisco Department of Environment. When the conversation turned to the potential to offend a city IT staffer, Hirshberg turned to Nutter and asked, “You work for the city, are we in trouble yet?” Nutter’s response? “I’m part of the [Muni] strategic planning team and I think this is a great thing.”

Jessica Pearce is a writer for GovFresh and a GAFFTA intern covering Summer of Smart and other topics in open government and Gov 2.0. Follow her at @jesseract.

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