May 222013
 

I wrote a DFW-specific piece on civic coding in the area a while back and more recently followed up with a more general article on preparing cities for civic coding events.  Now I want to double-back to DFW in particular again and drill down into one aspect of the first article.

First, a lamentation familiar to just about every resident of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex: traffic.  As this area has exploded, practical transportation options have lagged.  Sure, new highway segments like 161 have popped up here and there, relieving some congestion, but massive construction such as that on 114 and North Loop 820 shows that our ability to get from point A to B is woefully inadequate.

This point was especially driven home today as I received responses to an invitation for a social mixer at the TECH Fort Worth business incubator.  In this regard, Fort Worth is well behind other areas, such as Plano and North Dallas.  One of my goals has been to support increased tech event and meetup opportunities west of Highway 360.  But anyone living in and around Dallas quickly experiences the pain that we Westies have been enduring for years: it can be near impossible to attend cross-town events, especially in the early evening.

The ultimate answer in my opinion is a drastically reduced emphasis on automobile-oriented solutions and more rail.  A LOT more rail.  That can be a hard sell in Texas, but we’re getting better at entertaining the notion.  We just still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, DART and the TRE do serve major parts of the metroplex fairly well; the closer to Dallas the better that service gets.  And there are plenty of stops in well-planned locations.

When I visit other countries and even some other states in the US, I see city centers have developed around rail hubs.  Government services, shopping, entertainment and other amenities tend to naturally sprout around these stations.  Even without nearby rail, the city center concept has been gaining great popularity in the US in recent years.  It’s easy to see why: the alternative, malls, proved in many cases to be an unsustainable premise.  There are many reasons why and that’s out of the scope of this article.  But one aspect of failure was how indoor malls isolated people from their environment.

In outdoor city centers, you tend to see far fewer cars and much, much more foot and bicycle traffic… especially if they are fed by public transport.  The oppressive atmosphere of cavernous malls is gone.  Along with these features, you see higher degrees of social engagement.

Which gets me back to the social coding premise.  While trying to launch a DFW-wide civic hackathon, I focused centrally in the hope of helping to create that civic center experience where it doesn’t quite yet exist.  But we DO have a strong candidate in DFW: the CentrePort business park.  I was just unable to convince anyone that the time was right to start adding another layer of usefulness to the campus.  And perhaps the time is not right, just yet.  Still, it would be a shame to completely ignore the potential.

CentrePort

CentrePort is the home to many high-contributing companies, such as American Airlines.  It’s also an important logistics hub to others like Whirlpool, Johnson & Johnson, et al.  Combine that with convenient hotels such as Marriott, plenty of eateries, proximity to DFW Airport, a rail/bus stop and accessible highway connections, and you have the starting point for a truly dynamic civic gateway.  And a great future site for events like hackathons.  We just need a few more additions, starting perhaps with a true intermodal center at the CentrePort DART/TRE station.

So my plea to DFW municipal leaders is simple: let’s take a long look at other civic centers, and get to work enhancing CentrePort in similar fashion.  Yes, Dallas has a nice DART gateway near the American Airlines Center, and Fort Worth has two downtown with potential, we still need that central nexus with fairly easy access for anyone and everyone.  A civic center for all of us, regardless of where we live and work.

Let’s get that on the agenda.

May 092013
 

I lamented the other day how the Dallas-Fort Worth area does not seem quite ready for civic hackathons (aka coding events), and how one I was trying to create wound up being scaled down to a workshop.  I want to add that this is not necessarily a bad thing per se: it just means there is more work yet to do here than I had expected.

For those unaware, a civic hackathon combines software developers with engaged citizens of all backgrounds to leverage open data sets into solutions for civic services, lifestyle improvement, etc.  Stakeholders will pitch their ideas to the general attendees in the hope that a team will form around their proposal.  The types of solutions generated could be pothole reporting apps, improved online billing interfaces, emergency notification solutions… you get the idea.  Essentially, government agencies and departments from city to federal stand to benefit from citizens freely helping overcome bureaucracy and modernize public services.

Open solutions require open data, and this is where the greatest challenge lies.  Often, government data sets are designed without openness in mind, to address highly specific needs.  This leads to closed silos of isolated information.  To be fair, this issue is just as common in the corporate world.  The difference is that in civic situations, the taxpayers own the resources.  In an ideal world, they would have at least some say in the development and deployment of these data sets.

Fortunately there’s a growing trend to pry these information stores open, and provide public access via APIs and web services.  NASA and other federal agencies are leading the charge, while state and local governments are seeing the value and working to follow suit.

Many cities are ahead of the curve here, driven often by desperate need to do more with less and solve drastic problems.  Extreme weather damage, water shortages, transit issues and other civic disasters drive desire to open data sets to armies of skilled volunteers.

But for cities wanting to get started with civic coding events when lacking experience, there are some steps to consider:

  • Get informed.  Follow the activities of organizations like Hack for Change and get a feel for what these events entail.
  • Get empowered.  Most cities already have a person or department tasked with public engagement.  Common events include trash pickup days, park picnics, etc.  Civic coding events just become one more to add.  Public liaison personnel need not have a grasp of the technical details; that’s for IT and engineering departments.  And if you don’t have this sort of liaison capability, create it!
  • Get involved.  Chances are you have local citizen groups (hacktivists) already active in necessary components of a civic coding event.  Data experts, programmers, bicyclers, geocachers, urban design enthusiasts, Makers, gardeners… this is just a short list of the clubs you will want to connect, and odds are many exist in your locality.  Check sites like meetup.com to find them.
  • Audit other hackathons.  Odds are there’s a municipality nearby that has one or more civic coding events under its belt.  Sign up, sit in and learn!

There’s more to it of course but there are the fundamentals.  I’ll explore further in upcoming articles.

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