River Festival

Hackathon Q&A: Riverfest event aims to improve Wichita

Seth Etter is organizing the civic hackathon that will take place over 24 hours at Riverfest.
Seth Etter is organizing the civic hackathon that will take place over 24 hours at Riverfest. File photo

“Hack” can sound like a bad thing, depending on the definition.

But when it’s for improving the lives of yourself and your fellow Wichitans in some little way — and in the big middle of Riverfest to boot — then it’s a good thing.

A civic hackathon, set for June 4-5, is one of the new events at Riverfest this year. If you’ve ever had an inkling of a way to solve some annoyance about life in Wichita or make something easier, you are invited to get involved.

Not up on your hackathons? Here are some questions with answers from organizer Seth Etter to help you understand what’s involved, and take part – or just observe – if you want.

First things first. What is a hack?

In the old days, a hack was a person who did something for money or other compensation. In the computer age, it became a verb — as in, breaking into a computer.

Most recently it is being used to mean a creative solution to a problem, or something to make life easier or better.

What is a civic hackathon?

It’s a quest to come up with ways to improve life in a community. Wichita is only the latest city to have one. In the case of the Riverfest civic hackathon, various projects will be brainstormed and worked up over a 24-hour period, and three of them will be selected to be presented to the city manager for possible implementation in Wichita.

“Hacks” involve technology in some way, but you don’t have to have any technological expertise to share your idea or help achieve one. The beauty of a hackathon is that other people who do have the expertise can help work on your idea. Conversely, if you don’t have an idea but have some expertise or just want to help, you can attend the hackathon to help make someone else’s idea happen.

What are examples of ideas?

Ideas for the Riverfest hackathon are already being discussed online and include addiction avoidance, community-wide wi-fi, a real-time crime app, an Amber Alert dashcam, and a storm-shelter locator.

“We encourage people to focus on solutions,” Etter says. “It’s not an event to get up and complain about something. Figure out a way you can work toward fixing it yourself instead of yelling at the government and telling them to fix it. ...

“The project could be as simple as a research project. One thing I’ve seen some civic hacking groups focus on is a lot of time city information on a website might not be available in certain languages. Volunteers come in to translate. That could be a project. It doesn’t have to be building up something or creating an app. It could be compiling something, making it easier to understand.”

Organizers are encouraging projects that are small and focused on a very specific problem. A Boston civic-hacking group came up with a Streetbump app that runs in the background on people’s smartphones. It uses the gyroscope on the phone to record bumps on the streets as people travel them so that the city can detect which roads need maintenance without having to spend money on sending out crews to scout problems, or relying on complaints from motorists.

Open Wichita was formed last year to create technology to improve the lives of Wichitans. Group member Seth Etter presented at Wednesday's 1 Million Cups.

Open Wichita, a hacking group in Wichita, has come up with an app that shows where city buses are at any given time.

Other examples involve analyzing publicly available computer records to provide a service. For example, someone in New York discovered that the police were still giving parking tickets to drivers for an infraction that had been lifted by a new law, and training was instituted to make sure the officers were informed about such changes.

How will the hackathon work?

The hackathon starts with a meet-and-greet at 10 a.m. June 4 on the mezzanine in Exhibition Hall at Century II, and introductory remarks will be delivered at 10:30 a.m. People who have ideas can pitch them starting at 11:30 a.m., and attendees will form teams around those ideas. If you get there and decide you don’t want to work on any of the ideas, you don’t have to stay.

“It sounds like it won’t work, but it always works. You get people matched up in what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about, what their skills are.”

Once teams have formed, they will work on their ideas from noon June 4 to noon June 5. Teams can knock off during the night, but food and drink will be provided, and they can work as late as they want. Attendees who decide they don’t want to pursue it can leave anytime. The public also is invited, and can observe during daytime hours.

On June 5, teams will make presentations about the work they’ve accomplished at 1 p.m. Judges will announce the top three teams at 2:30 p.m. The top team will receive $500, and the team in second place will get $250. The three teams will be able to pitch their ideas to the city manager at a later time.

What do I need to bring?

A laptop computer. “Not everybody has to have one, but if it’s something they’re going to need,” bring it, Etter said. “We’ll have Wi-Fi and power and food and drinks.” There is no fee to take part.

What can I learn at the hackathon?

“There will be tons and tons of mentors available, with different levels of expertise. They will offer their help and advice along the way,” Etter says.

“And as part of this we’re going to be offering a couple different learn-to-code workshops. So if people want to pick up some quick coding skills and apply them to the project” they can do that.

How many people are expected to participate?

There is room for about 250 people. Etter doesn’t necessarily expect that many, but he does expect a good turnout of more than 100. There’s no deadline for applying.

“If something is interesting and they offer their help however they can, everyone can play a role if they want to.”

How can I apply?

You can find information and registration at wichitariverfest.com and hackathonict.com.

Riverfest Hackathon

Where: Mezzanine in Century II Exhibition Hall, 225 W. Douglas


Saturday, June 4

10 a.m.: Meet and greet

10:30 a.m.: Opening remarks

11:30 a.m.: Idea pitch and team formation

Noon: Start working

5 p.m.: Check in/Saturday closing remarks

Sunday, June 5

9 a.m.: Opening remarks/check in

Noon: Project work cut-off

Noon: Break/presentation prep

1 p.m.: Presentations

2 p.m.: Judges’ deliberation

2:30 p.m.: Judges’ results/awards

3 p.m.: Closing remarks

To register and for more information: wichitariverfest.com and hackathonict.com

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