civic innovation

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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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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An Easy Way to Find Your Council Member

Want an easy way to find your Council Members that doesn’t involve a bunch of clicks, is mobile friendly, and provides the information in an efficient manner? If so, look no further than the City’s newly redesigned Who Is My Council Member webpage. This new web app replaces a SilverLight web app that used to be linked on the page. Let us know what you think about the improved functionality by commenting on this blog post.

You may be asking, why are we blogging about this? The web page is an internal research and development project for the City that uses an open data set’s API end-point and uses some example code various civic innovation projects that were developed at this year's City of Houston Hackathon. All the code for the page is open source and available on Github at

Frank C. Bracco is a Senior Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Frank holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

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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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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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Mapping the City of Houston's Electricity Usage Over Time

Last month, the Mayor's Office of Sustainability released, " use data for all municipal facilities that are larger than 25,000 square feet," to highlight a nationwide energy usage benchmarking exercise the City is participating in through the Houston City Energy Project. You can read more about the project and find links to the data here.

After seeing the post, our group was a buzz about using the electricity billing data available on the Open Data Portal to create a time-lapsed viz of electricity usage for all City assets - not just those above 25,000 square feet. Check out the results below (keep reading after the animated GIF to play with an interactive version of the viz):
City of Houston Energy Usage FY12-FY14 time-lapse

Click on the image to get the full sized animated GIF.

Using the interactive visualization below, a user can hover over points to see their address, the department responsibility for the facility, and see the energy usage. When a user clicks on a point, they can also see the energy usage and billing trends below the map. The map displays about 98% of City of Houston assets that consume electricity (but for unmetered street lights). Many of the small green dots with low usage are traffic control boxes, water pumps, and other like assets. A note on billing: there were some delays in November 2013 and February 2014 billings on some facilities, which caused some dips and spikes on the citywide trends (but, it shouldn't impact most individual facility trends).

Let us know what asset has the most interesting energy usage trend. So far the winner is the seasonality of energy usage at 18401 John F. Kennedy Blvd (a Bush Intercontinental Airport facility).

Frank C. Bracco is a Senior Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Frank holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

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How Will Open Data Affect Houston?

The City of Houston has an Open Data Administrative Procedure (policy) and we’ve started cataloging and identifying data sets that will be available on the Open Data Portal but what does the Open Data policy mean for employees, residents, and entrepreneurs? This blog post will look at just that, however, let’s define some terms to level-set.

What is data?

It is information that has been gathered by the City during its normal course of business.

What kind of data does the open data policy address?

It can include budget data, 311 requests, accident reports and much more; any machine-readable data the City produces that is not confidential or otherwise protected.

Now, what does the policy mean?

If you are a City of Houston employee:

The open data policy DOES NOT change your day-to-day activities. If you generate or manipulate data it will be cataloged. If the Open Data Advisory Board believes the data should be published then you will be given a template to ensure compliance with data standards and machine readability.

If you are a resident:

This is great news for residents as it means more data will be made public without submitting open records requests. If you don’t see a dataset you’re interested in, simply use the ‘Ideas & Feedback’ button to request the dataset. The appropriate research will be done and if possible the dataset will be made available. Please remember, all datasets are still subject to privacy laws.

If you are an entrepreneur:

Open Data can enhance existing businesses and create new opportunities as seen in other cities that have implemented Open Data policies. In fact, you can find an entire list of companies that use open data here.

Keep an eye out for the next post which will be a Wiki for the interim Open Data Portal.

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Working to Close the Feedback Loop on Open Data and Civic Innovation

A feedback loop is an important information path for most organizations, the City of Houston included. Following this year’s City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon, we realized we still have some work to do on closing the feedback loop for Civic Innovation and Open Data.

The City of Houston and our community partner, Open Houston, have been working together for a year and a half to provide the community with open data. You can find all of this useful data at our interim open data portal. When we first set up the portal, it was a "fly by the seat of your pants" experience: let’s put the data out there that are easy to publish or are already available. In the time since the initial push, we've made a few more datasets available, but proactively soliciting feedback has really been limited to interactions at Hackathons and a few community e-mails here and there.

Feedback button screenshot
Realizing we can do more, we’re working to close the feedback loop and provide members of the community more avenues to reach out. How are we doing this?

  • In the first week of August, we put Google Analytics on the interim open data portal to get an idea of pages being visited. What are the top 4 datasets for the past month or so? DON Code Enforcement Violations, City of Houston Demolition Permits, HFD Active Incidents, and – interestingly enough – Easements in Harris County.
  • How do we know if we're providing the datasets you want or if the datasets are even understandable? Well, we've added this nifty “Ideas and Feedback” button for folks to request datasets and submit their questions or feedback on existing data.
  • Open Houston has started hosting monthly Civic Hack Nights. This is a great opportunity for members of the community to share their ideas on what makes a good data set. You can learn more about the Civic Hack Nights at
  • In the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing more about the City of Houston’s Open Data Policy. This policy is going to provide a framework for us to work internally and externally to identify, release, and update datasets going forward. Part of this strategy includes community engagement and feedback.

The City’s Open Data and Civic Innovation program is still in its infancy, but we're incrementally working to improve and engage open data consumers. Let us know your thoughts on our efforts or ping us on what datasets you want to see. Head on over to the interim open data portal and click on the Ideas and Feedback button to share your thoughts.

Frank C. Bracco is a Senior Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Frank holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

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Houston Hackathon Roundup

Last weekend boasted many outdoor activities from Free Press Summer Fest to Sunday Streets, however, I spent my weekend indoors at the 2nd Annual City of Houston Hackathon. The hackathon is a 24-hour event where civic minded individuals share ideas and code for a cause. The cause, making the city they call home a better place. This was my first hackathon and I’m so glad I attended. The energy in the air Saturday morning was infectious and by Sunday it was clear that in 24 hours these teams had delivered some innovative high quality ideas.

This year’s hackathon registered 225 participants ranging from middle school students to veteran coders with 18 project submissions across the spectrum. Check out this cool time lapse: courtesy of participant and finalist Rocco De Grazia.

There were several different categories for winners. Three finalists were chosen and will be given the opportunity to present to Mayor Annise Parker. Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, a sponsor of the event, chose a winner whose idea promoted civic leadership. The Boniuk Foundation, a sponsor of the event, picked an idea challenge winner, a youth winner (18 and under), and a grand prize winner.

The three finalists who will be presenting to Mayor Parker are:

1. Houston’s Blighted Properties, a map of all the property code enforcement violations that also allows people to see the history of what’s going on with those properties
2. CarEye, is a solar-powered device, installed on the windshield of your car, that detects the presence of a baby or animal inside your car, as well as high temperature conditions. It calls up to two telephone numbers to alert you before disaster strikes.
3. #SLGT, a mobile app that connects residents to local businesses and neighborhood civic engagement. Support local, grow together!

Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership award was given to:

1., a collaborative platform to arrange stakeholder input into a comprehensive plan for the City of Houston.

The Boniuk Foundation’s winners were:

1. Idea challenge winner was Culture Map
2. Youth prize went to Make Houston a Better Place, a collection of three websites created by two 6th graders (I used a typewriter in 6th grade) to make Houston cleaner, more mobile and connected.
3. Grand prize went to Culture Hunt, an app to crowdsource all the cultural hubs throughout the city.

While the cash prizes are great it’s important to look beyond that to all the participants who spent the weekend making the City of Houston a better place, and the collaboration that took place between the City of Houston and civic minded individuals. Let’s continue this groundswell to the next hackathon!

A huge thank you to all the sponsors and everyone that came to support the events this past weekend at the Houston Technology Center!

To check out all submitted projects please visit See you next year!

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Project Update from the Houston Hackathon

The City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon is coming to a close and judging begins at 1:00PM today at the Houston Technology Center (410 Pierce St, Houston, TX). Check out Open Houston's summary of the projects as of late last night. Submissions are due by 12:00PM noon and will be available at as they come in. Keep it tuned here as we'll release a debrief of the event in the near future along with information about the winning projects. You can learn more about this year's Hackathon by checking out the Mayor's press announcement of the event.

Frank C. Bracco is a Senior Staff Analyst for the City of Houston Finance Department and is a member of the Performance Improvement Division. Frank holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Florida and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

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