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Upstate hackers tackle real-world problems

Kate O'Connell

Citizens around the US joined together with government agencies over the weekend to celebrate the first national hacker's day. Upstate programmers congregated in Rochester to put their skills to use in a 24-hour hackathon aimed at solving real-world problems.

A range of projects were worked on by hackers at the Rochester event. Some people aimed their code-writing at local issues while others collaborated with participants across the nation to solve challenges.

Projects included organizing and displaying ultraviolet radiation data allowing regional levels to be searched by zip code. Other apps were developed for use during severe weather events.

Lead organizer of the upstate event, Remy DeCausemaker, says during the hackathon, teams worked on the creation of educational games, development of a range of apps, and the organization and useful presentation of government data, among other things.

One group focused on creating a web application that uses the EPA.gov ultraviolet (UV) index to report hourly UV levels based on your zip code. The group also designed a mobile-friendly interface.

DeCausemaker says hacking is often viewed as an illegal or dishonest activity. His hope is that more events like this one could help to break that stereotype.

“My job is to show students that they can use their code for good," he says. "And events like National Day for Civic Hacking provide them with an opportunity to actually solve real-world problems.”

The word hacker often brings to mind an image of someone stealing credit card information from the murky corners of the internet, DeCausemaker says.

And, he admits that there are hackers who use their skills in a corrupt way. But, it’s a choice he says, and that’s not always the case. It’s not unlike the movie Star Wars, he explains.

“Hackers just use the force, and how you use it sort of dictates what kind of hacker you are. And there are Jedi and there are Sith, or if you want to use a wild west analogy that’s used commonly in the industry, you have the white hats and the black hat,” he says.

He says in a lot of ways civic coders are like the volunteer firemen who take the time to use their skill set to help others.

“There are problems out there and the average citizen, unless they’re exposed to code or pay very high amounts of money for an education, they’re not going to know how to solve them. But by doing it in the open source way, not only do these hackers get to put out the fires, but they also get to teach people how to put out their own and solve their own problems.”

DeCausemaker says in an environment where governments are trying to do more with less, social hackers are more useful than ever.

“As far as I’m concerned, software might be the only way to solve some of the toughest problems and do it in a cost-effective way.”

The White House is expected to recognize some of the most outstanding projects from the nation-wide hackathon next month.