Bit by Bit

These 'Civic Hackers' Are Creating Tools to Improve Life in the Bayou City

Houston’s got problems? Maybe data is the answer.

By Amber Tong May 12, 2017

Hackathon photo c0u1jh

Hacking Houston's future

A bot that automatically tweets air-quality warnings, a website that finds a user’s closest early-voting location, and an app that reminds users when to take out their trash and recycling: All began as ideas conceived at meetups for a group called Sketch City, and all have become useful tools for improving life in the Bayou City.

“Maybe for every 10 ideas, one gets off the ground,” explains Jeff Reichman, who founded Sketch City—which is made up of self-proclaimed technology advocates and “civic hackers”—five years ago. “For every 10 ideas that get off the ground, maybe one is successful. I don’t know what the metrics are, but we have to nurture all of those pieces.” And when ideas don’t come to fruition, he adds, “that’s okay too.”

Sketch City meets regularly throughout the year, hosting workshops and hack nights where members develop technical skills and ideas for projects that they believe can effect real change in Houston. “A lot of the people who come to Sketch City are interested in getting involved in community-focused projects,” says co-organizer Neeraj Tandon, “but some of them are not confident about their skills.”

All that preparation and confidence-building culminates in the group’s Hackathon, which takes place this month. At the two-day event, members put their heads together to find solutions to problems in the areas of transportation, the environment, criminal justice, health, and quality of life. Those problems aren’t new, of course, but the group’s perspective can be.

“It’s not good enough to have the best tech people in the world if what they’re building doesn’t matter,” says Reichman, “and it’s not suitable to have great ideas with nobody who knows how to get them done.”

Local leaders and organizations have taken note, with the City of Houston, Harris County and League of Women Voters all partnering with Sketch City. Last year, HPD asked participants in the Hackathon for a tool that would help them identify Houston-area demand for prostitutes, by analyzing sex ads and review boards. The end product, called “Johns Beware,” is now used by local law-enforcement agencies, as well as the nonprofit Children at Risk, which fights human trafficking.

“We tend to be a very bureaucratic agency that’s used to doing things a certain way,” explains HPD staff analyst Carla Manuel, explaining how the project has helped police. “Especially with human trafficking, we are talking about technology that’s facilitating the matching between suppliers and demand.”

The Sketch City community is growing rapidly: It now has a budget of $30,000—six times its original size—and boasts 2,000 members, all hacking the city’s problems together. “The sparks start flying, and then it takes on a life of its own,” says Reichman. “That’s very exciting, and it never seems to wane.” 

Houston Hackathon, May 20-21, Houston Technology Center, 410 Pierce St.

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