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At SXSW Interactive, Civic Apps Hack City Data For a Safer Austin

As South by Southwest Interactive grows, so does the difficulty of trying to encapsulate the annual conference. And while onlookers can point to big themes in 2013 and much, much more, one burgeoning area with real world applications is civic apps and hacks.

Simply put, civic apps take publicly available data – anything from crime statistics to restaurant inspection scores – and mashes them up with applications like maps, making them accessible to the smartphone set. The biggest example is Code for America, a national non-profit that works with cities to develop meaningful data applications.

“Last year, 2012, was really the first time we saw civic hacking and civic coding present at South By,” says Chip Rosenthal. This year, the Austin-based software contractor and consultant hosted a civic hacking meetup as part of SXSW Interactive.

He says SXSW 2012 “coincided with a time where City of Austin was involved with a Code for America fellowship.” The result was, an app that keeps residents apprised of wildfire conditions and issues checklists of tasks residents can use to lower their wildfire risk.

But back to SXSW 2013: A City of Austin-hosted hackathon, held in conjunction with mapping tech group Esri is already netting results. With just four hours to work, developers created a smartphone app plotting the city’s Map of Declared Dangerous Dogs that plays the sound of a barking dog barking whenever a user gets close to one such animal. And second and third place apps plotted restaurant inspection score data on a map. An Esri spokesperson says the apps will go live in about a week.

“When you have a short time period to create something, with a team you've never worked with before, the results are often clever and interesting,” Esri Director of R&D Amber Case says in a statement. “Sometimes these ideas showcase important problems that can be solved with open datasets.”

It’s an assessment that Rosenthal shares. “Rather than being this kind of theoretical, leading edge thing, this is something that more cities are doing, Austin absolutely one of them.”

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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