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Hackathon

A civic source code

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In Missoula, unpicked apple trees aren't just a waste of fruit. They're a black bear's treat, attracting the animals into city neighborhoods. A local nonprofit runs a program to glean the fruit from backyards so bears won't, but connecting homeowners with volunteer pickers is a yearly struggle, Ed Weymouth told the half-dozen people who had scooted on rolling chairs over to him.

Weymouth thought he had a solution: an app that could facilitate a local apple-gleaning network.

His pitch was one of many percolating in every corner of the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center lobby as part of Missoula's first civic hackathon. The event, held over Easter weekend on the University of Montana campus, brought together 40 or so people from diverse backgrounds in search of ways to use Missoula's computer programming prowess for the public good.

While hackathons around the country are often limited to the tech savvy and geared toward commercial projects, the Missoula event prioritized community collaboration. In fact, most laptop screens were shut Saturday morning as participants chatted about everything from sustainable food systems to the future of public libraries, hoping to identify projects they could collectively solve.

"It's great to have people with knowledge, but if you take that knowledge and you put it in a little box somewhere and you bury it under the ground, then it doesn't do anything," Weymouth says. "You have to take that knowledge out and share it with other people who have different sets of knowledge, and those little edges are where most of the change occurs."

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Weymouth completed the Montana Code School last fall but says the city's tech community has felt "tentative" and somewhat disconnected from other sectors in town. He says he considered moving to Bozeman, where the scene is more active.

The hackathon, however, attracted several Bozeman residents in addition to giving local programmers a chance to meet one another. But with just a day's time for participants to code, the "ecosystem of relationships" is as valuable as any widget a team might produce, says Harold Shinsato, an instructor at the Montana Code School.

By Sunday afternoon only a few hackers remained to present each team's work. That didn't bother co-organizer Will Halliburton, of Blue Sky Stewardship, who describes the event itself as a kind of demonstration project. "For me, the best hack I can think of is actually to make a thing generating civic hackathons," he says.

Halliburton spent his time writing code to automate the event organization process so his hackathon model can be "infinitely replicable." His words started to race as he explained his vision for synchronized events across multiple cities timed according to lunar cycles. He pointed to the flatscreen TVs mounted throughout the lobby, imagining programmers from Tokyo, London and Bozeman beamed into Missoula.

"That's all it is, it's a hackathon source code that I'm in control of right now that's running the show here, and it was controlling ... "

Before Halliburton could finish the sentence, someone handed him an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. He pulled the headset over his eyes and said, "Ah, beautiful." He'd already entered another world.

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