Palo Alto's hackathon draws on innovation, collaboration | June 7, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 7, 2013

Palo Alto's hackathon draws on innovation, collaboration

Community members solve community problems, one conversation at a time

by Karishma Mehrotra

The term "hackathon" usually conjures up an image of a warehouse filled with glasses-wearing 20-somethings who still live with their mothers, hunched in front of their laptops for an all-night coding fest.

There was indeed a warehouse, but the four Idea Hackathon sessions held at CityCamp Palo Alto on Saturday, June 1, drew 5-year-olds and 50 year olds — and fewer laptops than one would think. Session attendees — a diverse group of cartoonists, City Council members, computer scientists and more — didn't develop mobile applications but instead focused on real-life solutions.

They competed in a rock-paper-scissors marathon to get their energy flowing and designed sustainable transportation solutions with colorful pipe cleaners, construction paper and cotton puffs. Some introduced themselves with high-fives instead of handshakes, and others discussed their community's toughest problems.

The afternoon's four hackathon sessions each focused on an issue — resilience, connectedness, sustainability or health — and were hosted by Hewlett-Packard Co.; Accela; SAP Labs, LLC and Kathy Shen, Palo Alto's chief people officer, respectively.

"I think people want to do the right thing," said Lisa Van Dusen, co-founder of the social innovation studio First Person Impact.

Dusen helped produce the third hackathon session on sustainability.

"They just need the opportunity to see (doing the right thing) as an opportunity instead of a chore. There is a lot of 'civic solution-izing' around here. And I think people have a good feeling when they realize they can be a part of something that is going to make a difference."

The sustainability session paired participants, who then examined each other's commute patterns to brainstorm ideas that could help them become more sustainable.

"If you look at transportation, that is a huge, huge part of where we are not carbon neutral and not reaching our local, Bay Area and state and global goals in terms of addressing climate change," Van Dusen said.

Solutions included a dog escort service to combat fears of walking in the city alone, a suitcase with legs so people could carry it on subway stairs and a toothbrush that squirts water to speed up one's morning schedule and give extra time for public transportation.

Sandra Slater, project director of environmental program Cool Cities Challenge, told the person she was paired with that she sometimes decides not to bike because she feels unsafe traveling next to speeding cars.

"One of the things I realized is that I am the buffer between the parked car and the moving car," Slater said. "And that is not the way it should be."

Slater proposed an infrastructure change in which parked cars would be placed in between the bike lane and the moving cars.

But the main takeaway from the event, Slater said, was networking. One could see those kind of connections being made left and right at the hackathon sessions, through the exchange of Twitter handles and LinkedIn profile URLs.

"The whole notion of bringing together different perspectives, points of views, ideas is fascinating," said Jeff Stiles, vice president of marketing at Accela. "The co-innovation angle, right?"

Stiles led the second Idea Hackathon about connectedness, or, what he more specifically focused on: civic engagement.

"We view civic hacking as a way to leverage public and private partnerships to build innovative solutions," Erica Harvill, Accela's senior marketing communications manager, wrote in an email. "Whether government- or citizen-focused, we are always looking for ways to improve governments at the federal, state and local level while fostering civic engagement by leveraging cloud, mobile and web-based technology and for opportunities to help developers and business partners build their government businesses."

This session included a panel of three relevant innovators — Clara Brenner, the co-founder of Tumml, which supports early-stage companies developing products and services that improve urban living; Azmat Tanauli, the CEO of mobile government application CityGovApp; and Lily Liu, CEO of citizen-engagement app Public Stuff — who discussed the value of civic engagement and business opportunities. The panelists gave business advice to new developers in the audience, such as the importance of building a strong customer base before approaching the government and of finding one's niche.

"Civic innovation and tech is not the next Angry Birds or car-sharing platform. It is the emergency responder finding you when you're in trouble, understanding crime in places where your family lives and shops, finding housing and jobs and communicating with your representatives," Carla Mays, hacker and audience member, wrote in an email after the event. "It's not to turn the next buck but to efficiently use taxpayer dollars for public good."

But Stiles said there are many opportunities to serve a public good and make a profit. Developers are just missing one thing.

"A lot of people who are in a room like this come because they are passionate about a topic or social issues and that's fantastic," Stiles said. "But the thing that has really been missing — and it's the thing that will propel hacking and innovation — is the business model."

The passion Stiles referred to consumed the room with the last Idea Hackathon session about health, led by Shen.

"Let us find ways to make it easy for health to happen here, in the workplace, among our neighbors, in our schools and senior centers, in our parks and open places, with good and local food, with accessible care," Shen wrote in an email.

The small group of participants of this session sorted through ideas on a billboard of sticky notes, such as a bike party and small pets for older adults, that the hosts had collected throughout the day. Then, the "hackers" split up into clusters focused on topics such as exercise and the elderly. One of the groups hashed out an idea for a trusted community board that would list group exercise activities.

Van Dusen hopes the prototypes and ideas produced in the warehouse at 542 High St. this past weekend will move on to the next step: actual development.

"How can we create solutions here that can be shared, scaled, spread, replicated, borrowed from elsewhere?" Van Dusen asked. "There may be business ideas that come out of this. It's the beginning of something."

Editorial Intern Karishma Mehrotra can be emailed at


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