The City of Houston Hackathon: 24 Hour Geeky People

I experienced a range of emotions over a nearly-sleepless, 36-hour jaunt last weekend. From energetic to cranky, ‘why-did-I-agree-to-this’ to ‘second-wind-excitement’, I survived my first ever hackathon.

Houston Hackathon

But while I merely survived, I witnessed other team members thrive in what was also the city’s first hackathon, the City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon. It began with a packed party in East Downtown at Start Houston on Friday night, promptly following a full day of work. Then us ‘hackers’ retreated back to the office to begin working on two projects, not to emerge until the submission deadline at 4pm on Saturday.

Straight from their website, the Houston Hackathon was:

…a day-long event devoted to collaborative creation and coding that addresses City and citizen needs. Over 24 hours, hackers pitch ideas, form teams, and build something awesome for their community– like a website, a mobile app, or an insightful data visualization. No need for fancy presentations or polish: just solutions that benefit the City of Houston and your community.

Smartbridge cohorts stepped up. We volunteered 12 of our own to tackle two of the city’s complex challenges. Several more new teammates stepped up as well, and became honorary “Smartbridge-ers” to help us create and present our projects: Crisis360 – Mobilizing Houston’s Emergency Management, and Mayor’s Dashboard: Operational and Financial Dashboards.

A small part of our team preparing for the presentations. Click to enlarge.

Of all those emotions I experienced, the last one remains – pride of our accomplishments, for how we were a part of our community, and for my teammates. It’s amazing how many people can still be so driven on so little sleep. We congratulate the winner (we called it before they finished their 2 minute presentation!), the Citywide Fee Schedule project, and we have mad respect for our new friends with the city, Hack Houston, Code for Houston, Jeff at January Advisors, and all the other volunteers that made it happen.

But I can’t speak on everyone’s behalf. Together, Smartbridge made up two of the largest teams and we all walked away with something new. Here are a few more thoughts.


Putting all the pieces together requires a tremendous group effort.

My first hackathon experience was both hectic and exciting. Our task for the Crisis360 project started out with loading the City of Houston’s emergency management facilities and infrastructure. But the day before the start of the competition, we were challenged to add a new zoning functionality to Crisis360.

This was no small task, and required everyone on our team to be at the top of our game. Working quickly, we broke the team up into 4 groups, data entry, iOS development, web app development, and web services.

I was incredibly impressed by how each group managed their tasks, and communicated their workflow to one another. With very little time to prepare, we managed to delegate the requirements out to each group and then off we went. As the hours passed by and things began to take on their final form, we could all see how the pieces were finally coming together as one. The goal of putting all the pieces together required a tremendous group effort, and is one that I am proud to have been a part of.

Danny Tsang, iOS Developer

A lot can happen in just 24 hours.

This past weekend was the second time in my life when I went 40 hours straight with barely any sleep. The first time was when I was in labor a long time ago. Needless to say, the hackathon was a lot more fun when compared to that.

I come out of this hackathon with new respect for the City of Houston Finance team headed by Kelly Dowe. Talking to them gave us insight into the complex issues they are trying to tackle. Being a long time Houstonian, I feel confident that Mayor Parker will continue to move Houston in the right direction with her awesome team.

I think participating in events like a hackathon can be addictive because of positive emotions of team spirit, pride, sense of accomplishment and instant gratification we experience. Our team has benefited tremendously from this exercise.

Deepthi Raju, Data Scientist

Asking the right questions upfront makes all the difference.

2,254. If you saw the Crisis360 presentation or rehearsals, you know that this is the number of facilities the City of Houston must track on any given day. It’s also the number of facilities we successfully loaded into Crisis360 during the Houston Hackathon.

What you may not know is that it was our conversations with city staff, Frank Bracco in particular, that alerted us to the existence of the database file listing these assets.

Before the hackathon, we debated the value of attending the kick-off party. But if we hadn’t taken the time to go and ask questions of the stakeholders, we wouldn’t have learned about this critical file. Without it, we would have accomplished far less in the 24 hours we had to work.

Only by taking the time to ask the right questions were we able to maximize the impact of Crisis360 and achieve what we accomplished in the short time that we had.

Sam Knowlton, Idea Generator/Designer

You give to the community, but get something valuable too.

Participating in the Hackathon was one of the best things that happened to me. I was working with the Crisis360 team. My role was to develop database and web services in order to support zone marking on the maps.

This was the very first time I had the opportunity to design data model for a system. I remember drawing different designs, rubbing it off and drawing again back and forth numerous times. It was fun, challenging and insightful. I was exposed to the challenge of designing a system in more or less 12 hours which will be robust, fast and well-behaved in different conditions, and at the same time accurate.

I must tell you, Smartbridge should do such exercises more often. It definitely made me more mature in terms of system designing.

Vivek Agrawal, Data Scientist

(For grins, here are the two presentations we did sans any professional effort. Sorry, the first few seconds of each are cut off. We were also featured in this great video recap from ThatVideoMagazine.)

By | 2017-01-30T10:58:32+00:00 May 21, 2013|Categories: News|Tags: , |

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  • Kelly Dowe

    Thank you all so much for the great contributions. Your apps and your entire team are spot on. You’re a pleasure to work with, and I hope we have the opportunity to advance the work you did at the hackathon. I’ve started a blog at and have included a post that references the work you did.