DeVice Wins the Hack4Colorado Pot for App that Helps Feed ‘Vices’

What do you get when you put 100 Denver-area hackers together for about 48 hours and give them access to loads of data about hiking trails, where city dwellers can plant urban farms—and where you can buy marijuana legally?

You get 18 apps that can help rescuers find injured hikers, connect urban farmers to buyers, and help out-of-towners find cannabis and feed their vices while staying on the right side of the law.

Those were the ideas that came out of Hack4Colorado, a “civic hackathon” hosted in Denver by Galvanize. Teams designed apps through the weekend before an award ceremony Sunday.

The event was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. About 90 events were scheduled as part of the event, which is in its inaugural year. The turnout for Hack4Colorado made it one of the largest events, Hack4Colorado organizer Ann Spoor said.

Eighteen teams developed apps that take public data provided by federal agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau or local governments and turn it into something useful for citizens. Teams competed in five tracks: tourism, health, sustainability, education, and government. The winners took home $2,000 each.

The audience voted DeVice Colorado best in show. The team put together an app that will help users find places near them where they can feed their vices. The app can be customized to the tastes of individual users, and features a broad number of “vices,” which includes traditional vices like alcohol but also activities like hiking.

The app still has some kinks to work out, but it uses geolocation to find the user, and it knows where to find craft breweries and distilleries, coffee shops, trails, and late-night restaurants. But what probably set DeVice Colorado apart was its ability to direct users to the nearest marijuana dispensaries.

Legalized marijuana is a big issue in Colorado. There already are hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, and in November, Colorado voters approved the retail sale of marijuana.

Supporters say retail sales could lead to the development of a legal-pot tourist industry. If they’re right, something like DeVice Colorado’s app could become a widely used tool.

DeVice Colorado’s website also includes links to information explaining the legality of marijuana in Colorado and which communities have opted to keep sales illegal. Other helpful features let users summon a cab and pulls data from police reports so they know how safe an area they’re in.

DeVice also won the $2,000 prize for best tourism app.

Along with handing out prizes, the hackathon helped promote the idea of civic hacking, said Jason Lally, one of Hack4Colorado’s organizers.

The key concept of civic hacking is that entrepreneurs, coders, and designers can use their expertise to build tools that help connect citizens with each other and government officials, Lally said. The government’s contribution often is releasing some of the voluminous economic and demographic data it collects. Civic hackers can use that to build apps or even companies.

The idea resonated with the Hack4Colorado crowd.

“I saw a lot of heads nodding as people were presenting. I think a lot of teams got the idea of using public data sets and about trying to build something from them,” Lally said.

Companies trying to capitalize on big data have been around for a while, but getting that data from publicly available government sources is new and potentially fertile ground for businesses.

“I think we’re in the middle of its emergence. It’s really, really new,” Lally said. “There are definitely precedents, but we’re defining an industry.”

Prominent local startups like ReadyTalk, SendGrid, and iTriage sponsored Hack4Colorado and sent employees to help teams during the hackathon and judge the event. Many also provided cash prizes to the teams that best used their public APIs.

Getting government officials on board was another matter, largely because of the impression that hackers always have bad intentions. Some communities seemed to understand the benefit a hackathon could provide faster than others.

“I think people here really got that. In other cities, they didn’t get that at all,” Spoor said. With Colorado officials, “we had to explain it, but it wasn’t a difficult conversation.”

The idea seems to be here to stay. While this is the first hackathon under the Hack4Colorado banner, it’s not the first civic hackfest in Colorado. That honor belongs to the one organized last year by Colorado Code for Communities.

That event drew about 30 people, Lally said.

After about 48 hours of work, organizers were a bit burned out. When they’ve recovered, they’ll make some decisions about the future of the event, but it doesn’t look like civic hackathons are going away in Colorado. The city of Denver and the state government are planning hackathons of their own, Spoor said.

“We’re hoping this event is the launching pad and will create momentum for future events, like the city and state’s hackathons,” Spoor said.

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