Hacking for Good (Food)

NYC Food + Tech Hackathon logo, event participants

Hacking. What an evocative – and suddenly a household – term.

Early the morning of Saturday, December 4, about 100 New York-area sustainable food advocates, all with big ideas, converged on a shared co-working office space in SoHo and spent the next twelve hours – hacking.

Now is a good time to better understand hacking, which generally refers to a re-configuring or re-programming of a system to function in ways not originally intended. And as we've seen in the news, like any resource, this can be used for good or ill. Hacking can refer to a modification of a program or device to provide access to features otherwise unavailable. But too frequently, hacking refers to criminal acts (identity theft, credit card fraud or other computer crimes).

Our day was of good hacking, with these new technologies organized as part of the International Open Data Hackathon, a very loosely connected pool of individuals and groups in 33 countries (and a virtual ‘global' Random Hacks of Kindness) including 14 events in the US, locally hosted by Food+Tech Connect, Open Source Cities and GoJee. Through laughter-filled, hard-working thoughtful collaboration, we sought to bring many big ideas to life (one even addressed co-working spaces).

Why all the excitement in the food and tech communities at this time? Well, another term is worth noting: ‘Semantic Web‘, which comprises a group of methods and technologies allowing machines to understand the meaning – or “semantics” – of information. The more computers can comprehend data, the more effectively data can be passed along, or integrated in contexts.

As this Semantic Web (sometimes called Web 3.0) emerges, the US government is currently in the vanguard of this new technology space. Largely ignored by the media, the Obama administration early on hired the first-ever Chief Information Officer of the US, Vivek Kundra. His team launched Data.gov, which hosts demonstrations and documents to help familiarize Data.gov users with this new technology. This in turn is encouraging citizens and developers to work with the government to create a new generation of ‘linked data‘ mash ups. This vast well of fast-growing data benefits food, water and energy advocacy. (Drop a zipcode into the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘My Environment' to get an idea of the value of available info; or check out the Department of Energy’s ‘Information Bridge,' a widget people can embed on their web or blog page for easy access to DOE documents and info.)

Growing up in Iowa near large areas of Amish communities, I was privilege to witnessing barns built in a day. So I could easily let this post be about the majesty of group collaboration and the patriotism of volunteer advocacy, but I'll trust that the results of this ‘hackathon' will sufficiently inspire you.

Saturday’s event began too early for many of us, including my colleague (and GRACE program director) Destin Joy Layne and me, who dragged our caffeinated best-selves to SoHo, and by 8:15 am, we had hit the ground running, reviewing the ideas and concepts that people had submitted to the event’s wiki page in the days preceding the event. We broke into groups and began to work.

The group I worked on became a project we ended up calling WE MAKE FOOD, which sought to develop an application and directory of resources for small-batch, local food producers which would also provide a searchable directory of producers for consumers (and could compliment and interact with a number of existing resources, including the Eat Well Guide).

Our process was to break our team into smaller groups of specialized disciplines. One task was to gather useful resources, the other, to structure the site in a way that makes it easy to use. While our web developer peers built the tech foundation, we combined our varied professional expertise and knowledge of existing online resources (such as Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science’s excellent New York State Food Venture Center) and reached out to farm-to-table and nutrition experts in the field of small business food production.

After a lunch break sponsored by GRACE featuring 4food, and their creative sustainable cuisine, we dove back in (later enjoying delicious mid-afternoon snacks, thanks to Nichelle Stephens.

At 7pm, the groups began presenting the fruit of their labors. Of the concepts, several were in good enough shape for public demonstrations. Among them:

  • CSA Tool
    This app provides open data sources about Community Supported Agriculture by networking community centers, vacant lots, unused government buildings and co-working spaces.
  • NYC Community Garden Map
    This team created a gorgeous and informative interactive map that also supports a directory of resources for community gardens, and increases awareness of community gardens by residents. Check out their ‘edible gardens info', which shows the percentage of NYC gardens that grow edible food. (Yes, that’s per garden, not an average.)
    The goal is to link consumers to buy ‘shares' of whole animals directly from farmers. Check out the working demo, which features an elegant sliding scale allowing users to price by cut of meat.
    This site uses aggregated USDA data to illustrate how the operating costs for milk producers vary regionally over time.
    This app plans to allow you to search to find what you want to eat, when you want it – by menu item, not just type of cuisine. The example of the carnivores' difficulty of finding restaurants that serve grass-fed steak was described as reason for building the app.

If all the above wasn’t enough, we also enjoyed a mid-day break – a talk from Dominic Difranzo of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute regarding his primary research in the Data.gov Wiki Project – about how huge amounts of data are being converted into Semantic formats. If you're following the Semantic Web development, you'll really like his talk, captured by Danielle Gould and viewable on her terrific Food+Tech Connect blog.

These fresh-hatched ideas are ready to continue to grow, thanks to the Semantic Web/Web 3.0 developments. They demonstrate that we can look forward to a freeing of human data far exceeding anything in human history.

Whether or not the media or history books will credit the Obama administration for the Open Government Initiative, the program will continue to inspire countless society-changing initiatives. And had you asked any of the attendees of the hackathon, you would have been told that organizers of the New York event (Danielle Gould, Marc Alt, Steve McGrath, Tian He) deserve credit, too.

By the time 8pm rolled around, no one was tired from a twelve-hour workday – everyone was too inspired – from hacking for a better world.