The Great Montgomery Hackathon

The Great Montgomery Hackathon logo sitting atop a light blue area shaped like Montgomery County, Maryland

By DC-area hackathon standards (Montgomery County, Maryland, makes up part of the border to the north of the District), [The Great Montgomery Hackathon]( was a small event. About 25 programmers, civic activists and students spent last weekend holed up in a Montgomery County community center working on projects for the public good. However, the diverse interests and backgrounds of the attendees made for an event unlike any other hackathon I’ve attended.

Rather than being a room full of developers hidden behind their laptops, we had parents and their kids creating wireframes of the views for a mobile web app. We had civic activists telling developers the problems they had requesting public information from the county government. We had non-technical attendees pitching in on data entry tasks to transcribe PDFs into a database.

Most amazing of all, we had a group of **middle school students** camp out in another room (they were too cool for us anyway) and work on using the [Census API]( to put demographic information on a Google map. These crazy smart kids are going to steal my job in a few years.

Many thanks to Montgomery County Chief Innovation Officer Dan Hoffman and County Councilmember Nancy Floreen for attending on Saturday! It’s good to know that efforts like these are supported by the county government.

two people presenting a project at a hackathon
Transit project contributors demonstrate their app. Photo credit: Josh Ruihley.

To focus the event, I worked with Paula Bienenfeld of the Montgomery County Civic Federation to come up with project ideas that solve actual problems civic activists have ([Laurenellen McCann]( also helped us in the very early stages of planning). These projects included:

* **Transit:** There are numerous mobile applications of varying quality that help you find when your next Ride On bus is coming. Unfortunately, looking up schedule information for *other* times usually involves consulting massive PDF files. The transit team used Montgomery County’s [Ride On Live Transit API]( to build a mobile web application that makes it easy to find schedule information for nearby stops. The information can be cached so that the schedule is available even when stuck in a Metro tunnel without a data connection. Internationalization is on the to-do list as a non-trivial number of Montgomery County residence do not speak English as their primary language.

* **MPIA:** The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) is our state-level version of FOIA. The Attorney General provides an [extensive manual]( about MPIA with guidelines and example letters. The [foiaface]( team worked on a project to help people draft MPIA requests that follow the guidelines and automatically send them to the appropriate contacts for the department or agency to which the request is being sent. Future changes will allow people to upload the responses they receive.

* **Demographics:** Many civic groups have a need to look up demographic information for various areas around the county. Are cell phone towers being installed only in low-income areas? Are bus stations being placed too far away from areas with high concentrations of car-less people? The team got a good start on a simple map that would allow anyone to quickly find census demographics based on location.

* **Maryland Lobbying:** Lobbying registration forms in Maryland are available online, but only in PDF form. Transcribing PDFs is the perfect task for civic activists that want to get involved, but have limited experience with computers. While the content of these PDFs can be extracted programmatically, we used them as a test to see if we could come up with a workable, repeatable system. The almost 200 PDFs that have been transcribed will serve as a data set that can be used to check that our automated tools are working as intended. This was also a good test of the transcription tool, which can be used for other PDFs in the future that would be much harder to scrape. [Try out the data entry tool or view the current database here.](

We plan on holding monthly hack nights to keep these projects moving forward. If you’d like to attend, follow [@hackMontgomery on Twitter]( You can find code for most of the projects on the [hackMontgomery GitHub page](

The event was sponsored by the [Montgomery County Civic Federation](, [Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, MD](, [Montgomery County Taxpayers League]( and us, the Sunlight Foundation.