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Star of American University GreenApps Hack-a-thon is Organic Online Collaboration

2011 September 6

American University hosted a hack-a-thon for Apps for the Environment this Labor Day weekend where nine EPA data experts were available to developers to support the use of EPA data in developing mobile apps. There was coding, there was a little college football and a lot of coffee, but the biggest lesson learned is that we can use online tools to support developers across the country, even when they can’t physically attend a hack-a-thon.

When holding a hack-a-thon you can never be quite sure of the turnout – especially over a holiday weekend that also coincidentally is the first week for college football. We knew the importance of working with American University to make our data experts available for an event, though, which demonstrates how we’re working every day to listen and respond to your input. And with a handful of apps in development from the day, it certainly was worth it. As an example, here’s a list of some of the apps that people worked on during the day that we’ve begun to compile. And some data resources that people identified as useful in apps for drinking water.

Specifically, we highlighted that remote participation was encouraged using tools which, for many of us, were the first time we’ve used them at this scale. We think that’s one of the points of both a hack-a-thon as well as Apps for the Environment – working together and figuring out newer, better ways of supporting each other. For example, at the request of a developer, we set up the GreenApps IRC chat account on FreeNode and developers and subject matter experts connected in real time.

We think the risk and willingness to try new things paid off, as by afternoon we had to project an “online collaboration command and control center” on the big screen as online and in-person participants integrated FreeNode Web IRC, UStream, Google+ Hangouts, Google Chat, Twitter and GitHub. For a bunch of data geeks like us, it was exciting to see this come together organically – we knew though that despite any challenges, if we made sure there were enough ingredients at the barbecue that the developer community would use them to cook up something good.

Throughout the day participants engaged online, some who we already knew about and some who just popped online to ask a few questions then returned to their work. We look forward to sharing the results of their work when they are ready to. But also, when asked by Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media what the outcomes of the day were, our Dave Smith tweeted “Big lesson is the need to beef up our web services offerings and documentation.” We encourage you to have a hand in how that takes shape by sending us ideas and feedback.

As a result of these lessons learned at American University’s hack-a-thon, we look forwarding to finding new ways to further facilitate the use of these online collaborative tools to support the development community. Stitching them together for an event is one thing, but only together (i.e., with your input) can we help create sustainable spaces that reduce barriers to participation and increase opportunities to match skill sets, develop new teams, and share resources. Perhaps in the future we’ll be hosting hack-a-thons that are completely online to remove geography as a barrier to participation. We’re interested in hearing your ideas on this. And we plan to share what we learn so we all benefit.

If you participated online for the hack-a-thon, or are working independently on a project, now is the time to let yourself be heard – share your progress in the comment section , ask for help if you need it, post your project on this list, or use your experience to inspire others. We continue working to make improvements to our own services (such as the design of this very blog, which was recently enhanced), and look forward to finding new ways to collect and catalogue our online dialogues for posterity. Until we get there together, stand up and let others benefit from your contributions!

Thanks again to all who attended, contributed to and got the word out about American University’s hack-a-thon – the Apps for the Environment team is looking forward to next time, but in the meantime is ready to engage!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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