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.
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.)
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.
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