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Using Neural Networks for Safer Roads | HackNTX Recap

Through the grapevine which is social media, I heard about an amazing event in Denton, TX called HackNTX . I had to ask some questions to learn about what was hacked.

I had visited Denton over 4 years ago to connect with the community on their fracking success and I’m always humbled to go to smaller communities who pack punch and boldly take ownership of their home.

I caught up with Kyle Taylor who is the Director of Community Engagement at Techmill who shared his story with me about the event.

And for those who don’t want to scroll to the bottom, Wang Shuyi, PhD, was the first place winner who used a RNN deep learning model to find patterns from Waze Traffic Open Data of Incidents Report, his tutorial goes over his experience and learnings from the event.

The model was built to identify a pattern of events that led up to a heavy traffic jam 30 minutes before it happened. After training the model with 29 days worth of Waze traffic data in Dallas Fort Worth, the results were fascinating. They were able to predict, up to 70% probability, when an accident or traffic would occur based on a pattern.

Congrats Wang!

How did you and your team learn about civic hacking?

Here in Denton, we have a number of community members who have been involved with or interested in civic tech and open data over the years. We had some people from local university staff and city council people going to Code for America conferences and learning about new ways to support open government and data initiatives. Then there are people like myself who are developers by trade and were introduced to open data — for me, it was another open data hackathon in Dallas.

Credit: HackNTX

After volunteering to organize that hackathon and learning so much about the organizations involved in utilizing open data from a city to benefit their own communities around Dallas, I wanted to bring that back to Denton. I met up with my city councilman, Kevin Roden, for a drink (the same one who went to the Code for America conference) to talk about what we’re doing now and what is a good place to start building a community in Denton around this initiative. So what do you do to get like minded individuals together? You throw a hackathon, at the council person’s house, and build a tool that helps people vote. And that’s what we did in 2013.

Kevin liked to bring the community together to pitch ideas for the city in the form of a mixer. Being in a college town with two major universities and a community college, there was never a shortage of young, bright individuals with unique perspectives to community challenges. I had just graduated in 2012 from the University of North Texas, so in late 2013 at Kevin’s mixer, I pitched an idea for a community working group called Open Denton whose mission was to advocate for and utilize open data for good in the city of Denton. Turns out, there’s a lot of smart, tech individuals in our community who have been chatting for a while, so in 2014 we formed a nonprofit called TechMill. Every board member had a unique initiative they wanted to focus on, and mine was student engagement and open data.

Remember those university staff I mentioned? Two of them, Jesse and Patrick, wanted to start by running an Open Data Day event of our own at UNT. While that first event was more over educating the public about open data, we’ve been running that event every year since then — growing it a little each time we host it. OpenGov was gracious enough to write up a small blog post on our series over the years. Jesse Hamner and Abdulrahman Habib (Habib for short) have been leading the charge on Open Data Day for the past couple years.

I had no idea how much publicly available data is out there, waiting for someone to come along and make sense of it. The fact that we can turn raw numbers into knowledge is kind of like magic. I learned a ton just seeing what the other teams came up with and am excited to do more.
- Dan Minshew, HackNTX participant

Since then, part of our work in supporting the city of Denton in open data has resulted in Denton becoming a What Works City, a program run by Bloomberg Philanthropies and GovEx. We helped gather community on data types, exports, and accessibility in the system, and TechMill was were graciously presented with an award from Denton’s Technology Services department for our support. We also have a podcast series and recorded with some of these individuals I’ve mentioned to talk about Open Denton and Building Smart Cities on Open Data.

I really enjoyed the hackathon because it gave me the opportunity to learn from experienced people, and it showed me the numerous possibilities in the world of hacking .
- Saif, HackNTX participant, who was 13 years old!

When did you get the idea to host a civic hackathon?

So while we’re no strangers of open data or civic tech, Open Data Day is more of a mission driven event, so the next step for us was to apply a competitive edge to it and turn it into a hackathon. How can we work with cities who a) have challenges that could be addressed through software and b) can be addressed using their own open data sets? Originally we were going to limit the scope to Denton, but wanted to expand it out for more of the region to be involved, and that’s where the idea of HackNTX came out.

What’s the next step for the future?

Well, the next immediate event for us is Open Data Day 2019, which is happening on March 2nd. Since 2015, we’ve hosted this event in Denton, but next year we want to expand out that event as well. Last year in Texas, we were one of two ODD events and the other one was in Austin (3 hours away). If we can take our experience of organizing this event for the past few years, and apply that towards a larger event with the end results benefitting our entire region — I’d call that a success.

As an information science student, attending hackathons helped me solve class projects. In some cases, I updated the hackathon solution I built and submit it for my classes project. In every event, I learned new tools and met people who helped me a lot to understand the problem and participate in making a useful practical solution using what I learned at school. Furthermore, hackathons helped guide my research interest and I published my first peered reviewed journal article based on work I started at a hackathon event.
- Abdulrahman Habib, HackNTX organizer, UNT ASIS&T

Who were the other winners?

At 3rd place was a project called “Krakatoa.” A web developer and data enthusiast from Denton, Adam Krawiec, took a simplistic approach to analyzing the Waze traffic data. He imported the 937,482 records into MongoDB and made some quick statistics that could provide insight to any city official. To enrich the data, Adam implemented some simple calculations that gives a rough distance in a stretch of a corridor that shows the density of traffic incidents by type. For example, in an approximate 11 mile stretch, 237 minor traffic accidents occurred on I-35 W Southbound.

At 2nd place was Team Default Open Gov(TDOG). When it comes to open data and open record requests, there can often be a lot of overhead that goes into responding to, fetching, and returning documents. By default, most government records are stored privately and not always released on time or at all until the request comes in. These requests could be reduced or eliminated by implementing a better workflow to begin with.

TDOG looked to solve that issue by creating a platform on top of Amazon Web Services (AWS) utilizing DynamoDB, S3, and other tools that creates an auto-release schedule with secure tokens for releasing public documents. The team also considered integrating this approach with blockchain technology to utilize smart contracts for releasing these documents as well.

Credit: HackNTX

Anything else you want to share? How do you feel?

As a regular event organizer, it's always rewarding to see the outcomes of an event after spending the time to plan it. Being able to provide a space and opportunity to focus the experience of seasoned tech professionals (or academics in this case) into creating real solutions to real problems is just incredible. Residents want to improve their own communities and lives, we just need to give them the right tools and motivation to make some amazing!

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