Hackathon will engage residents and entrepreneurs in creative effort to make city safer, more efficient

Say you need to go somewhere you don't usually go. It could be a medical specialist you haven't visited before, or maybe you need an ingredient only available in a Morse Road market you've never visited. Wouldn't it be great if there was a quick and easy way to find out not only how to get there – your phone's GPS works fine for that – but whether it would be quicker to go by car or by COTA, or perhaps by CoGo Bike Share or Car2Go? Even better, what if on the same platform you could easily find out if there's a shared bike parked near you, and how much it would cost to use it? What if you could pay your bus fare or your bike fare on your phone?

Unfortunately, there's no app for that. Yet.

Smart Columbus seeks to change that. The folks in charge of implementing the $40 million grant that Columbus was awarded in 2016 as sole winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge—a grant that has been supplemented by a $10 million grant from a private foundation for reducing carbon emissions—are busy cooking up ways to make the city smarter by utilizing transportation-related data in new ways. One planned project is the creation of the “multimodal” trip-planning app described above.

Organizers are seeking out such ideas, and to do so they want to engage the community and the private sector. App developers, designers, entrepreneurs and creative, engaged citizens are all invited to attend a weekend-long “hackathon” May 18-20, to brainstorm and workshop ideas. Those attending will be able to peruse available data and get a preview of the many data streams—anything from real-time traffic information to available parking spots near highways for tractor-trailers—that will eventually become available as Smart Columbus rolls out new projects over the coming two to three years. Participants will pitch possible applications and form teams to think them through.

Jay Clouse, Smart Columbus's “Entrepreneur in Residence,” is planning the event. He calls it a sort of “coming-out party” for the Smart Columbus Operating System, which is the name planners are giving to the online platform to and from which all this data will stream. “This is just, 'Hey, this is available. Let's get you in here and look at it, give us feedback so we can learn what we can do to improve it,' ” he says, “and at the same time let's take on some of the specific problems we've identified.”

The streams of data that will serve as the lure for developers–and that Brandi Braun, deputy innovation officer for the city of Columbus, calls “the backbone and the lifeblood of our journey to becoming not only a smart city but also a smart region,”—will eventually be extremely diverse. They will include static data, such as lists of public monuments, and dynamic data, such as information about the movements of city vehicles as well as those driven by volunteers who sign up to participate.

At the hackathon, organizers will present some “data stories”: case studies of problems that app developers can try to solve with existing data. One such example is the problem of trucks striking highway overpasses. ODOT spends $1 million a year repairing bridges hit by oversize vehicles, accidents which can sometimes lead to loss of life. To encourage app developers to find a solution, Smart Columbus is publishing a database of Franklin County bridge dimensions, and at the hackathon, participants will be invited to propose ways of making that data usable for truckers and logistical planners so such accidents can be avoided.

Is there money to be made in creating apps with Smart Columbus data? Perhaps, says Clouse, who also runs a startup accelerator business. But first and foremost, he says, participants at the hackathon “are residents of Columbus, and we want them to help improve Columbus.”

“Building a smart city is a collaborative effort,” he continues. “We recognize that we have a lot of smart people and we want to leverage them. We want to empower them and let them join in this effort of improving our city.”

The Smart City Hackathon will take place May 18 to 20 at Fintech 71, 107 S. High St., and is open to anyone who ponies up the $20 advance fee ($40 at the door) and is willing to dedicate a weekend. 

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