4th Annual City of Houston Hackathon Roundup

On the weekend of May 13-15, a crowd of local data nerds, coders, hackers, and generally civic minded residents gathered together at the Houston Technology Center to build cool things, share ideas, and above all, eat free food at the 4th Annual City of Houston Hackathon.

This 4th iteration of what is becoming a must attend event, featured over 200 attendees that worked diligently over the course of 24 hours fueled on coffee, civic responsibility and the aforementioned free food to build 15 very impressive applications.

You can read more about the four finalists by following the links below. Each winner will have the chance to present their project to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

  • Johns Beware - A project dedicated to ending sex trafficking by reducing demand, supporting law enforcement, and creating awareness.
  • District Finder API - This API allows other applications to find all sorts of political districts for a provided latitude and longitude.
  • Invoice Dashboard - Imagine you’re a vendor doing business with an organization that is based only in one city but has 22 AP groups.
  • Task Bounty - Service marketplace to empower and employ local citizens to address local municipal issues.

A huge thank you to all the sponsors and everyone that came to support the event at the Houston Technology Center! You can get the full list of shout-outs over on Sketch City's blog.

More information can be found about all of the projects at:

If you are interested in getting involved with Civic Technology or attending future hack nights, please reach out to our partners in these efforts: Sketch City.

Kurt leads improvement projects, performs ad-hoc data analysis, and provides high-level strategic insight for the division. Kurt received his Master of Public Administration and his Bachelor of Arts from Oklahoma State University. Prior to joining the City, Kurt managed analytics for Waste Management’s Energy Services customer segment, delivering insights into customer profitability, pricing strategy, service delivery optimization, and mergers and acquisitions strategy. Kurt has been at the City previously and was one of the inaugural members of the Performance Improvement Division. Kurt is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified and has led various projects throughout the city. In his free time, he likes to play basketball, ping pong and board games and enjoys trying new restaurants with his wife, Brittany.

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Talking About Performance (Without Complicating It)

Sports are a world of measurement. Let’s take a sport like basketball. Suppose I tell you a player averages 15 points per game. Is that a good player? A bad player? A great player? A good coach would know that based on this limited information it would be impossible to answer that question with any certainty. Basketball is about more than just scoring. Players can block shots, rebound missed shots, steal the ball and assist others in scoring. So, now what if I told you the player averages 15 points, 9 rebounds, 10 assists and 3 steals per game. Is that a good player? A bad player? A great player? A good coach would still realize that these statics only measure certain aspects of effectiveness. To truly assess this player you still need more information. How many shots did they take? How many minutes did they play? How many possessions did their team have during the game? A good coach wants to know how the player made use of their resources. The business of government is no exception. Performance measurement allows policymakers, managers, and citizens to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of government services.

The Johns Hopkins University Center for Government Excellence has created this short video to help governments get focus on the substance of performance measurement. Check it out here:

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Grant Dollars Help Houston Deliver Public Services

Every year the City of Houston applies for millions of dollars’ worth of grant funding for everything from childhood nutrition programs to affordable housing. In addition to the continuation grants received by the City, in 2016 the City received over $62 million dollars of new grant funding to support public services. Managing grant submissions is a massive effort that involves coordinating with departments to present a comprehensive application to sponsor organizations. The Grants Management Division is responsible for this mission and they help each department put their best foot forward as they start the lengthy submission process.

Recently the Grants team partnered with the Innovation and Performance Division to share out facts and figures in an insightful manner. Viewing raw data is one way to understand the City’s grants, but our team would rather let you, the reader, explore the information yourself. Use the dashboard and filters below to view the data any way you want.

Receiving a grant award is just the first step. Once a department receives the award, they need to work with Grants Management to ensure they are complying with their Federal or State grant requirements . Annually the Grants Management division is responsible for producing the City’s Schedule of Expenditures of Federal and State Awards (SEFA) which is part of the Single Audit Report (SAR). The SEFA lists all expenditures related to Federal and State award programs for that year and verifies that proper accounting and reporting for each grant award. The SAR is an audit performed on all aspects of an organization or municipality that spends more than $750,000 of federal funds in a single fiscal year. Grants Management has been successful in reducing audit findings for the City from 7 in 2009 to 1 in 2015. Click on the image below to better understand compliance.

Paul Fagin is a Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Paul received his Master of Public Administration from Texas A&M University and his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin.

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City of Houston's First Ever Open Challenge

The City of Houston’s first ever Open Challenge was launched on October 1st, 2015. Former Mayor Annise Parker and Former Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez asked the civic tech community to help the city identify solutions to three challenges. Instead of 24 hours, which is how long we give citizen technologists at our annual Hackathon, participants had 2 months.

The first challenge was around deed restrictions. Deed restrictions are maintained by Harris County and the only data that the City can provide is a listing of potential deed restriction violations that have been reported to the City. Keeping these restraints in mind this challenge was open ended. The City asked participants to study deed restrictions and create a plan to manage the information. How should it be communicated to the public? Is there a “best-practice” in deed restrictions in another city?

The second challenge dealt with public meeting notifications. From city council sessions to neighborhood association meetings, Houstonians should easily be able to find the public meetings that are important to them. The challenge was to create a customizable notification system.

The third challenge concerns City Council Records. Ever Wednesday, City Council meets to discuss policy and authorize spending. The minutes are reproduced online, but they are not easily reportable. The challenge is to create a scraper that categorizes data in a useful and meaningful way.

The results of the Open Challenge are in! After two months of working on the challenges and a grueling week of assessment from judges, the winners of the first ever City of Houston Open Challenge were announced on Dec. 10th at the Open Houston Meetup. We want to congratulate:

Deed Restriction Challenge Winner – We received two very different submissions for this challenge. We received a thorough study of deed restrictions from one group and a proposed structure for deed restriction from another group. We think both submissions have benefits and have decided to split the prize. Thanks Rachel Green, Rebecca Rodriguez and Kyle Shelton for your hard work!

Public Meeting Notification Challenge Winner – created a fully functional public calendar that includes meetups, events and council sessions. Thank you Patrick Eleden for your hard work!

City Council Record Challenge Winner – Parabyte. Parabyte created a search function for procurement. It is a fully realized vision with very fast searching capabilities. Thank you Rakshak Talwar, Micah Thomas and Fabian Buentello for your hard work!

Thank you to everyone who participated!

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Rice, City Of Houston To Join National MetroLab Network

Network to focus on solutions to infrastructure, city services, civic engagement challenges

September 14, 2015 -- Rice University and the City of Houston will join forces with 20 other cities and 25 other universities from across the country to create MetroLab Network, a network of universities and city governments charged with collaborating on solutions to the challenges confronting urban infrastructure, city services and civic engagement. The partnership was announced today at a Smart Cities event held at the White House.

The partnerships, made up of university representatives and city decision-makers, will use technology and analysis to research, develop and deploy solutions to the problems facing the systems and infrastructure on which urban citizens and regional economies depend. The network will focus on common challenges facing cities and develop shared, scalable solutions that can be deployed across the network.

The projects can be undertaken solely by a city-university partnership or by a team of city-university partnerships facing similar challenges so they can leverage network resources and expertise. The MetroLab Network will be organized and operated by a management team, initially led by Carnegie Mellon University.

“One of Rice University’s ongoing priorities is engagement with the city of Houston, and the MetroLab Network is an ideal way to build on our existing efforts,” said Rice President David Leebron.

“We’re thrilled that Rice and Houston are part of the MetroLab Network,” said Bill Fulton, director of Rice's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which will be the network's main point of contact for the Rice and city of Houston partnership. Experts at the Kinder Institute will play a role in putting the available data into context and generating ideas about which urban problems that data can help address. “The time is right for a great research partnership that will help Houston -- and other cities as well,” he said.

“Rice University is one of this nation’s finest institutions of higher learning,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is a 1978 graduate of Rice. “Some of the best research minds around are available right at our front door. This partnership will allow us to tap into that wealth of knowledge to gain answers that will help us make informed future decisions in key areas.”

During the 2015-16 academic year, each city-university partnership will focus on three research projects to be completed by the end of the year. The city of Houston-Rice University projects will be:

Impact of housing change on neighborhoods and families
Significant anecdotal evidence indicates that in Houston, as in other large cities, families of modest means are being displaced by “gentrification” in neighborhoods close to the downtown area and being pushed to locations farther away from jobs and transit. Using city and county permit data on construction, demolition and substandard housing, Rice researchers will document the characteristics of housing and housing change in particular Houston neighborhoods, and compare them with current and changing neighborhood demographics. This research will be used to inform future housing and infrastructure policy in the city.

Impact of streetlights and neighborhoods
Using geographic information systems data about the location of streetlights and billing data about streetlight usage, Rice researchers will map streetlights in Houston and also map and analyze patterns reflecting when streetlights are in use or out of service. The streetlight data will be examined against data associated with neighborhood characteristics, crime, traffic accidents and other factors. This research will be used to inform the city’s decisions about where to locate new streetlights and how to prioritize streetlight repair.

Bike-share analysis
Using data provided by B-cycle, which operates Houston’s bike-share system, Rice researchers will conduct an analysis of bike-share usage and accessibility of bike-share station locations. Houston trends will be compared with trends in Austin, Fort Worth and Denver using data provided by B-cycle. This research will be used to assist the city of Houston and B-cycle in decisions about future locations of bike-share stations as well as improved management and operation of the bike-share system.

For more information on the MetroLab Network, visit

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Performance Insight: FY15-Q3

I recently unveiled a balanced $5.1 billion proposed total city budget for the coming fiscal year. This wasn’t easy to do with revenue limitations, growing pension and debt obligations, and an ever-increasing demand for City services. We were able to submit this balanced budget in large part due to a tremendous effort to become a leaner and more efficient government. The City has honed its focus on performance improvement and data-driven management.

Hackathon Experiences Across the Spectrum

The City of Houston hosted its third annual citywide Hackathon at the Houston Technology Center last weekend. More than 400 civic-minded technology professionals, students and hobbyists completed 29 projects over the course of the 24-hour event, making this one of the largest and most successful city-sponsored Hackathons in history.There was not only a variety of projects but also people that attended the hackathon so we thought it would be interesting to put all their experiences in a blog post.

Co-Organizer Perspective

They say if you want to be smart, surround yourself with smart people. Nowhere is this truer than at the citywide Hackathon. My favorite part is being able to engage with the brightest minds on ways to improve life in Houston, and then going beyond simply talking about the issues into the realm of doing something about them. Going from room-to-room, I sat with the MyHPD team that was generating an app that could potentially revolutionize the ways citizens interact with police officers – an issue that is on the top of everybody’s mind. I watched in amazement as Micah Stubbs made the City’s organizational chart come to life. I brainstormed ideas with the Campaign Finance team on how to make the flow of political contributions more visible and open to the public. All of the teams I came across were thinking BIG and transforming those ideas into action. That is the power of civic innovation.

Veteran Project Winner Experience

The City of Houston Hackathon is one of the premier events of the year for me. As both a resident of Houston and a City of Houston employee whose job revolves around improving our operations, being able leverage the collective brain power of hundreds of energized and talented Houstonians to analyze and improve City data and services is an experience unlike any other. This year’s Hackathon highlighted for me how important it is for optimized City operations. Why? Citizens are demanding more and more mobile applications – as evident in this year’s projects – that provide on-demand services and data. To meet these expectations, our operations have to be up to the challenge of providing responsive service that meets the mark each time; this means reducing wait time, eliminating error rates, and reducing wasted effort in processes. I look forward to seeing how this year’s crop of Hackathon projects push us as an organization to improve and offer even better services to the citizens of Houston.

Newbie Experience

As a newbie Hackathoner I was truly happy to participate in the city's hackathon. It was an exhilarating experience to see how everybody came together and contributed to improve our city one small piece at a time. I am going to actively work to increase hackathon awareness throughout the city.

Hackathon Project Creator Experience

Come ready with a scope. It doesn’t have to be super detailed but at least come with some thoughts and goals outlined of what you want to accomplish. Be ready to pitch this idea in a short elevator-pitch-style that will make participants want to join your project. Keep your scope/goals attainable for the hackathon, meaning you can deliver something in 24 hours, and also leave your project scope scalable too so that it can be adopted by and integrated easily into a new business -- or in our case -- city department or project. 

If you missed the hackathon, have no fear. There is a monthly hack night on July 7th at 6PM at the Houston Technology Center. Come join the fun! More details about hack night can be found at

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Houston Hackathon Idea Series: Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping has really gained momentum in the last five years as a tool to help people find, use, and share important information when residents need it most. Crisis-mapping uses data from e-mail, text messages, and social media to plot events on an interactive map in real time. It is clear to see the usefulness of this kind of technology. The Office of Emergency Management is asking for help with a regional crisis map. Managing the different resources used during a crisis for a city as big as Houston has its challenges, let alone the entire region. Let’s see if it can be made a little easier. You can find the details of this challenge and all the challenges at

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Early Payment Discounts Save City Money on Procurements

The City of Houston procures goods and services from thousands of vendors each year. State law requires the City to pay invoices for these goods and services within 30 days of receipt of goods/services or receipt of invoice, whichever is later. This model of purchasing on account or credit is common in government and larger private sector companies. The City's tradition of paying net 30 (paying within 30 days) provides a balance of allowing the City ample time to verify and process the invoice while also ensuring the vendor receives payment within a reasonable amount of time.

Houston Hackathon Project Winner Debuts: Nuisance Tracker

The winning project of the 2nd Annual Houston Hackathon will make its debut on the City’s webpage this week. Nuisance Tracker is a map that allows all citizens to view open code enforcement violations—such as, graffiti, weeded lots, junk motor vehicles, and many more—throughout the City of Houston. The map is searchable by: specific addresses, 311 Service Requests, HCAD properties, Council Districts, or by simply zooming into violations as you normally would on a Google map. When you zoom in on a violation address the map provides you with a status of the violation and the City's actions to resolve.

Check out the project on the “My City Maps” webpage, starting March 19th:Nuisance Tracker Map

Since its inception, the Houston Hackathon has generated strong turnout from the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) community. Following the completion of each Hackathon, City employees work tirelessly to implement the winning projects and live up to Mayor Annise Parker’s earlier promise when she said, “We want to use the applications and insights that are created at the Hackathon as soon as possible.” The next Houston Hackathon will be held on May 16-17, 2015 at the Houston Technology Center, help spread the word.

Paul Fagin is a Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Paul received his Master of Public Administration from Texas A&M University and his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin.

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