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Coding for Community Helps Towns, Cities Develop Apps on Their Wish Lists

Contest for the state’s digerati puts tech skills at service of municipalities, along with a chance to take home some bankable prizes

Lauren Skowronski of Sustainable Jersey
Lauren Skowronski, director for community engagement for Sustainable Jersey

New Jersey municipalities have a lot of good ideas for working smarter, growing greener, and becoming more open to the tech savvy, but many don’t have the time, talent, or resources to make their dreams a reality.

About two dozen towns have eagerly publicized their needs to computer hackers, geeks, and nerds in hopes of seeing their wishes come true through New Jersey’s first statewide Coding for Community civic-tech competition.

“We’re pairing municipalities with technology professionals and students to develop real solutions for local sustainability and public engagement issues,” said Lauren Skowronski, director for community engagement for Sustainable Jersey, the sponsor of the competition. The nonprofit organization helps governmental officials achieve sustainability goals.

The event kicked off last Friday, with coders and community officials gathering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark to hear the rules, brainstorm ideas, and form teams to start working on more than 50 tech projects suggested by municipal officials, Sustainable Jersey and others.

This effort is different than a hackathon, in which teams work around the clock over a weekend to try to build some sort of useful tool. The programming teams are being given two months to complete a project, with everyone reconvening on March 31 to demonstrate what they have built for the audience and for a group of judges.

“The reason we made it an eight-week competition is because we really want to build usable apps,” Skowronski said. “We want something the towns can walk away with and use.”

Alex Torpey, former mayor of South Orange who is a visiting professor at Seton Hall University and works as a consultant, said teams need to focus on stakeholders — who they are and how to meet their needs. (That will help them build useful applications.)

civic coding project lists
Municipal officials, Sustainable Jersey, and others suggested 50 tech projects that they'd like to see implemented.

Coders enjoy these type of challenges as well as the opportunity to build a problem-solving app. Programmers have already adopted a number of places, including Newark, Trenton, and Jersey City, where Code for America brigades create tools to improve government websites and access to information. Coding for Community is going beyond just the good will of hackers, offering a total of $15,000 in cash and other prizes for winning teams of coders and local officials.

The wish list of projects is broad and includes:

  • “Activate East Orange,” the city’s project envisions a one-stop shopping platform that would give residents and visitors maps of gardens and farmers markets, access to free or low-cost health resources, an events calendar, portal through which to pay bills and taxes, place for investors to inquire about vacant properties, along with numerous other features.

  • Hammonton is looking for a smart irrigation-controller app that would provide weather conditions and information about moisture in the ground and how to monitor it, with the goal of reducing unnecessary lawn watering.

  • In an effort to reduce emissions from leaf blowers, Maplewood would like a program that would let those interested in raking lawns connect with potential nearby clients willing to pay them.

  • Perth Amboy is looking to better manage street light outages, hoping for a platform that would automatically notify the department of public works when streetlights go out, mapping the bad lights to make it easier to fix them.

  • Trenton is looking to be more attractive to entrepreneurs, and would like to develop a business assistance portal to provide technical and startup support, including grant opportunities, marketing assistance, forms, licenses, and tax incentive information to retailers, developers, and others.

  • Highland Park is shopping a full dozen ideas, from a “Geek to Geezer” app that would link tech-savvy young people with senior citizens who want to learn technology and become more digitally astute to a public-meeting minutes tool that would allow users to search by topics.

Matthew Hersh, a borough councilman, said Highland Park has embraced technology as a way for the borough to communicate, using social and other media. The town has created a digital data task force and is working on ways to digitize its data and improve access to what’s available.

“We have a lot of good ideas,” Hersh said. “We are woefully under-resourced. Events like these are really important to help us improve transparency and also have an informed citizenry.” While the state’s largest cities may have greater resources for technology than smaller towns, they also offered up some ideas to the coding community.

Jersey City, for example, is looking for a way to better manage storm water to reduce flooding and sewer overflows. The city is hoping for a predictive model for flooding that would show impacts on homes and residents.

“One of the things we, as a city, have prioritized is engaging as a community,” said Brian Platt, director of the Office of Innovation in Jersey City. “We don’t always have the expertise, the knowledge, or the experience to solve data-related problems.”

The city has reached out to residents and business owners to talk about challenges with storm water and now is looking for a tech solution.

“The infrastructure in Jersey City is very old, so there’s not a simple, easy, quick fix,” Platt said. “We want to try to make sure if we are spending tax dollars on this, that we do it prudently and efficiently.”

Seth Wainer, chief information officer for Newark, agreed that the state’s largest city does not have a lot of resources to devote to technology and so is always looking for “creative ways” to continue to innovate.

The city is looking for a tool to help it keep track of vacant properties, allow people to see what properties are available, and give them a way to bid or otherwise try to acquire land. Newark is also looking to enhance the Brand Newark prototype kiosk in downtown, which provides such services as free high-speed Internet, community notices and alerts, maps, weather, and other information.

Although the competition has begun, it’s not too late for municipalities to submit requests for help and coders — whether they’re college students, hobbyists, or professionals — to adopt a project and start working on a solution.

The winning team of hackers will receive $8,000, while second prize is $4,000; the municipality supporting the first place project gets $2,000, with $1,000 for the town coming in second. Other prizes for the developers include coaching sessions from industry experts and free work space. AT&T is providing prize money and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Knight Foundation are project funders. The programming code for all submitted projects will be posted and become freely available for anyone to adapt, meaning many more communities may benefit from the work. Wainer said this kind of competition has been a dream for a time and is a great way to get communities together to share solutions: “We’re hoping to get this big ecosystem of cities solving problems.”

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