The City of Edinburgh Council (CEC)’s first ‘civic challenge event’ took place this month, and yielded some outstanding results. This flexible hackathon launched on the 26th of September with the Council announcing its ever-increasing open data sources, the categories that submissions were to be entered in to, and the judges.


Presentations at Creative Exchange. Credit: Glasgow = Open City

Five weeks later — which is a good amount of time for a healthy hackathon that can fit into a normal person’s schedule, on the 8th November, the submissions were in and it was time to gather interested parties together for a … party, at the Creative Exchange. There was an interesting mix of designers, developers, business-y people, a few students and a surprising number of folk from other councils and similar organisations looking for inspiration for running their own events like this. So go CEC for blazing a trail of innovation! People have noticed.

Indeed, on Sunday 10th November, Sally Kerr introduced the presentations by saying EdinburghApps is by no means a one off, but just the start of bigger and better things. There were a lot of entries, all of them quality, so here’s just a selection.

EdinBuzz by Ally Tibbitt

A responsive (small screen friendly) website that serves as a hub for cleaned up data from a variety of sources, including the results of FOI requests. The site runs on WordPress, and also includes visualisations and objective accounts of the datasets. Thoughtful search-engine friendly headers have been used for each data post, so that people typing questions into a search engine will find these results easily (this is already working). It’ll allow ‘normal’ (non-data-nerd) people to have “informed discussions about the services they receive”.

Airts by Alistair Andrew and Andrew Bone

These guys have been working on logistical scheduling problems in their company for some time, and decided to apply their expertise to an area which could potentially benefit thousands of vulnerable Edinburgh residents. From the data released by the Council, they discovered that a company is contracted by the Council to deliver assistive technologies (mobility scooters, etc) to residents, and collects them again for reuse when they’re no longer needed. The company aims for delivery within 5 days of an order being placed, but very rarely hit this target, and in fact have a backlog of 400 deliveries.

The Airts team seem to have done a lot of research into the delivery company, and built a system that integrates with the company’s existing process and is already in use by staff, who apparently love it. New orders, plus the backlog, can be uploaded to the system, and the optimal delivery routes calculated. They’ve optimised to meeting deliveries within 3 days, using only 2 of their 4 vans. This means there are still spare vans for buffering problems caused by traffic etc, plus fewer vans means lower environmental impact.

In the future the system may also be used to inform residents or their families of expected delivery times.

Efzin by Antigoni and Vasilis

Efzin means ‘wellbeing’ in Greek and is based on the notion that people need more motivation than they currently get to recycle.

The team focussed on creating a beautiful UI with a carefully thought-out colour palette, and designed (not built) an iPhone app (I think) with this in mind. Their mockup images are here. The app maps out the 4000+ recycling points across the city, allows you to filter down to certain areas and narrow down by type of recycling point too. It also provides general information about recycling.

So it makes it easy to find a nearby recycling point if you’re already looking for one, but I’m not sure where the extra motivation they were talking about comes from. I don’t think there was a competitive element.

The interface goes some way towards visualising which areas may be under- or over-supplied with recycling points – which might be useful to the Council – but this isn’t the aim.

Edinburgh Air by Cosmin Dumitrache and Emilien Radoi (Digicore Systems)

Cosmin and Emilien started by pointing out that the Scot Monument hasn’t always been that gothic, dark colour. So air quality is important and noticeable! They talked a lot through pollutants found in the air in cities, and the effects of these, before proposing that air quality sensors are placed on buses. This would cover a wider area than the existing static air monitoring stations, and potentially even require fewer sensors. This is an idea that has been researched before, but these guys are keen to put it into practice.

Neatebox by Gavin Neate

You probably haven’t thought about the location of the pole holding a pedestrian crossing trigger button in relation to the road crossing point and other things on the pavement. After hearing from Gavin, it’ll be impossible for anyone who was there on Sunday not to pay attention to this forever more.

Gavin introduced problems faced by blind and partially sighted pedestrians, and showed photo after photo of people trying desperately to cling to a guide dog (who are trained to sit at the edge of the road while waiting to cross), push the button and feel the tactile crossing-safe indicator at the same time. In many locations, this is simply impossible. The poles are set far back from the crossing, out of line with the area used for crossing the road, impeded by a bin, on a funny shaped corner or blocked by other pedestrians. This problem is everywhere, but Edinburgh could be the first city to solve it.

The Neatebox is a custom piece of hardware that needs to be installed at a pedestrian crossing, and can communicate with both the traffic lights and a highly accessible (obviously) iOS app. The crossing hardware can detect someone waiting to cross the road through the app, without the phone owner even having to do anything. It can make a sound or vibrate to indicate when it is safe to cross. It’s been trialled in Edinburgh with around 10 people, and feedback is good (official reports are due to be released).

This is SO cool.

It’s currently all funded by Gavin, and he would like Council support to take it to the next stage.

Your City by GearedApp

Similar to, but supposedly more flexible than, FixMyStreet, Your City aims to make giving feedback (positive or negative) to the Council completely effortless. People who make reports receive credits which can be spent on local services (like swimming pools). The community aspect of the app allows reports to be voted up or down, so the Council can figure out the most pressing issues. Potentially it could include the facility for the Council to communicate with people through push notifications, too.

It’s easy to use, based around the simple idea of snapping a photo and sending it, with your geolocation automatically captured. I don’t remember if it was possible to include text or only photos, but it wouldn’t make sense not to. I’m not sure how they’d compensate for less-than-accurate location reports which are pretty likely, especially in built-up areas, according to my own experience.

I was concerned about access to this service for more vulnerable residents who might not have access to smartphones. The team assured me that they’ve focused on building a flexible API so that it could be used with multiple means (like SMS), not just smartphone apps. They said it is “about mobility, not mobile apps.”

I also worried that even if such a thing existed and was downloaded by residents, the Council coping with a big influx of feedback might cause problems. They said that their API would enable it to be integrated into existing workflows within the Council, and that there are already people employed to take into account resident feedback.

Edin_City+Stroll by Gina

Gina’s concept is inspired by her experience in exhibition organisation and promotion and comprises a location-aware interactive map that shows cultural experiences to be had around Edinburgh. Aimed at both tourists and locals, she anticipates that existing datasets could be used as a base (she identified some fairly diverse ones, showing a good idea for integrating them), and further events data could be crowdsourced. I couldn’t tell if the app was supposed to plan a walking route for you based on your interests, or keep track of the route you had walked / were walking and tell you about nearby events as you were coming up to them. Both use cases would make sense. This is also, of course, easily extensible to other cities, but Edinburgh is an excellent place to trial such a thing.

Citizenification by Nev Stokes

Gamification of citizenship: participation in local issues, with a leaderboard, reputation (compared to Stack Overflow) and badges. His system is currently in development, and he says that gaming of the system can be avoided by “crowdsourcing in moderation”.

Farmers Market Calendar by James Baster

Based on the Has A Calendar system, James aggregates information useful to both tourists and locals about the surprisingly high number of farmers markets in Edinburgh. This content is just an example, as the calendar can be used for any related sets of local events. The calendar is open for anyone to edit — so lots more data can be crowdsourced — and it contains a handy versioning system in case of unwanted edits. It acts as a data hub rather than trying to take over an events web presence, and data can be easily exported for use in other applications, like Google Calendar. The underlying system’s robustness and utility has already been demonstarted with Open Tech Calendar.

Trash Man by Ciao Ricci and Jamie Lemon

Trash Man, a mostly functional Android app, encourages younger age groups to enjoy recycling by using a hero-style character. This character helps users find routes to the correct recycling points, provides directions, gives information about what can be recycled where, and provides a form to send feedback to the Council about issues with the bins. Users can also share their recycling experiences on social networks, and it tells you handy recycling facts! Some sort of points system to enhance the sharing here would be awesome.

Underneath this seemingly innocuous exterior is a fully functional custom analytics system which can send data to the Council about which bins are being used, the routes people are taking to them, and what people appear to be recycling in them, all based on use of the app.

Here I see an opportunity for telling people how to reuse or trade in unwanted items, too! (Freegle, SHRUB, repair workshops…)

Accessible Domiciliary Care by Kala Ramanathan

Kala’s idea was driven by a real need that she had witnessed, but it’s a concept I’ve heard about before. The main principle is to use technology to put “the power in the hands of the stakeholders”, which essentially consists of monitoring schedules and activities of care-givers. That way, the care-receiver and their family can be aware of when a care-giver is on their way, when they might be late, and what was done during the visit. It might also provide an easy mechanism for care agencies to schedule and re-schedule visits to make best use of the care-givers’ time. Someone pointed out at the end that the technology may already be in use in other cities, so she should investigate further. Either way, it would be useful for it to be more widespread. The benefits would be to vulnerable people who rely on carers, the relatives of these people, and the care agencies themselves.

Edinburgh Options by Katie

Another health related, real-need-driven concept. Using a number of different data sources — internal to the Council mostly, but they’ve looked at ALISS too (I checked), an interface would aggregate out of hospital care, health and wellbeing solutions for easy access by a doctor who wants to release a patient from hospital. Incorporating this data into a mobile app would allow the doctor to discuss the options with a patient at their bedside. Katie had observed that many patients are due for release from hospital, but still taking up beds because they’re waiting for appropriate care to be arranged when they leave. This sounds like a really practical idea, and… well… it’s weird that it’s not already in place everywhere.

Someone suggested that incorporating more personalised data, like who in the family may be available to provide care, would also be really useful.

Shop Local by Steven Kay

I love disloyalty cards! I used one when I lived in Lincoln a few years ago, but haven’t seen one since. I had a card with sections for stamps, which I could retrieve whenever I bought a drink from one of several local cafes. When the card was full, I could claim a free drink from any of the participating cafes. Steven’s idea is a digital version of this, which could potentially include loads more organisations. It would be possible to randomly generate a set of local businesses for your ‘card’ (ideally according to preferences you specify, like only coffee shops, or only in a certain area), and the rest is straightforward.

He described it like a bingo card. It would give a boost to small local businesses, helping them to compete with the large chains by making people more aware of what might be just around the corner from them. Driving custom this way would hopefully reduce the number of empty store fronts we see even in the centre of Edinburgh now.

I’m crazy about discovering new, unique, tucked-away places with tasty food and drink; I can also be really indecisive about where I want to go for a snack or lunch, so I’d use something like this all the time…

The winners!

As you can probably guess from that list of brilliant projects, judging was tough. They conferred for about 45 minutes, and came back with the following results…

Environment category

Winner: Trash Man
Honourable Mention: Edinburgh Air

Economy & Tourism category

Winner: Shop Local
Honourable Mention: Your City

Transport category

Winner: Neatebox

Wildcard category

Winner: Efzin

Health and Wellbeing category

Winner: Joint Equipment Store
Honourable Mention: Edinburgh Options

Technology & Innovation category

The winners of this category get financial and business support from the Council to finish and test their products, then roll them out across the city. Exciting! I’m excited. Because the joint winners are…

Neatebox (the blind-pedestrian road crossing aid) and Shop Local (the disloyalty card)!

These are all things that, should they appear, will make Edinburgh (and ultimately the world?) a better place. The City of Edinburgh Council has successfully done a Really Good Thing. I’m looking forward to the next one.

I left at the end of the celebrations on Sunday with a pressing urge to go and hack around with open data to make something awesome…