Last night Femininenergy and I went to Govathon. Neither of us are programmers or graphic designers or in any way part of the software industry, but this description convinced us to check it out:
Technologists, developers, designers, subject matter experts, civic veterans and city officials come together and collaborate to come up with ideas that make a difference for citizens. We will form teams based on interest in the ideas and backgrounds of people in attendance.
My TL;DR Experience: if you’re not a technologist, developer, or designer, the Govathon is not for you. The city officials wanted people solving specific technical problems, and were not looking for feedback or ideas. The citizen groups may have been different.
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The Govathon began with a series of pitches, which could be split up into roughly three groups: city officials (and a representative from the airport) looking for people to write free software, programmers in their twenties in it for the guts and glories, and small organizations looking for technical help.
For the city officials, every pitch was along the lines of: “we want this technological solution to a problem we have, and are looking for people to help create it.” E.g, the Department of Public Works wanted an online inventory system for equipment like cell phones, laptops, etc.
Some were reasonable projects and others were more pie-in-the-sky. I understand these departments have budgets that are stretched thin, but designing an Atlanta Public Schools portal for parents isn’t something that should be hacked together in a day, nor is there anything innovative about it. Ditto for the inventory system. None of these projects need 24-hour hackathons; they need funding and employed, competent developers.
The Airport guy was asking for things which, if implemented effectively, could make a person a billionaire.
The second group were entering into a hacking competition. The Govathon has a panel that judges the results of the overnight projects. The trend among these projects were government transparency, citizen feedback, and ways to get Atlantans engaged in their communities.
A prosecutor from Gwinnett County pitched a website where citizens would receive easy-to-access information about what was happening in their government and provide upvote/downvite style feedback. The idea was particularly savvy because it wouldn’t be marketed to citizens, but to politicians as a sort of constantly updated polling mechanism. Built-in business model! Polling is expensive, and if they could figure out a way to overcome the inevitable sampling problems the idea could easily grow into a successful company.
One guy proposed putting cameras around the city for the homeless to record their stories. These videos would be uploaded to youtube and ad money would be shared with the storytelling homeless. That’s insane, but the word innovative fits it much better than the official pitches.
The third group were organizations like Cycle Atlanta and an open source development group working with Peace Corps that had ongoing projects and were looking to recruit people.
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A project pitched by the Department of Planning and Community Development piqued our interest. The man representing the department said they were looking for a way to measure the effectiveness of different economic incentives on housing vacancies using data from a recently completed housing study.
When we got over to his table a group of students from Georgia Tech were looking through excel data. The planning department employee was busy chatting up a reporter from the AJC, about what I’m not exactly sure. Femininenergy waited patiently for him to finish (which took a while).
The Planning Department is not interested in measuring the effectiveness of economic incentives, they are interesting in figuring out where vacant houses are so they can declare them blighted and over tax breaks, grants, loans, etc. to developers that buy the property. If the city declares a neighborhood blighted, it can offer tax incentives and low interest loans to businesses to buy up vacant lots and build condos. This is used as a tool by the city in a conscious to drive poor people out of their neighborhoods and outside of Atlanta.
Femininenergy has written about this extensively. Her Built Environment series can be found here.
The housing study in the pitch was actually the recently released the Strategic Community Investment Report, a 200 page report outlining investment realities and strategies in neighborhoods throughout Atlanta. The employee had (I assume) worked on it, and needed help developing the data.
He said he had all this information on vacant properties but couldn’t share the exact locations of the properties with the public. He made a big deal about this. Bizarrely, a very detailed set of maps containing the exact location of every vacant property in the city of Atlanta can be found here.
Femininnergy asked him about the data, and I was pleasantly reminded that mansplaining isn’t just an internet phenomenon. She is interested in empowering communities to having a say in how their vacant properties are handled and suggested communities could help maintain a database of geocoded vacant properties. He said those communities cannot afford to invest in their neighborhoods developers need to be brought in to bring those properties into use. He then said he had to put on his professor hat (he is not a professor) and condescendingly asked her if she knew why poor neighborhoods were poor.
They had an argument that has been hashed out many times and many places. When Feminenergy asked how the Planning Department’s plan was helping poor people (as opposed to increasing the tax base), because he abruptly left to check on the Georgia Tech students. We figured there wasn’t any point in staying and at that point left.
So, not knowing what to expect, our experience at Govathon ended up being yet another reminder that the city of Atlanta is interested in expanding its tax base and appeasing real estate companies, never mind the poor citizens already living in the city. The city’s solution to poverty is export it to Clayton county.
Seizing abandoned properties using eminent domain and selling it directly to families is an innovative policy solution. Direct community investment is an innovative policy solution. Using technology to make it easier for the government to help real estate companies make more money at the expense of the poor is not innovative and it won’t solve anything.