At most hackathons, attendees are forced to sequester themselves in some funky-smelling rooms for days and nights subsisting on power bars and energy drinks. For this hackathon, the initial purgatory started at Google’s Fiber Space showroom, which was outfitted with a series of long conference tables covered in spill-friendly butcher paper and an array of beanbag chairs. But because many parts of the city have such great connectivity speeds, people quickly decamped and went mobile. And then a curious thing happened: Things calmed down and people started helping each other.
Because of Kansas City’s Google Fiber service rollout, the 120 attendees had far more workspace options than groups at a normal hackathon; in fact, they had entire neighborhoods to stretch out. Like predators in the wild, the increased range seemed to have the effect of softening competition, which you could take as one indication that city-wide broadband projects can actually tangibly change the culture (at least, the technological culture) you'd expect to find here. A surplus of broadband, this hackathon seems to suggest, can become a human surplus.
Hanover Heights, one the subdivisions just down the street from Google’s HQ, was one such additional staging ground for the hackathon. It’s been dubbed “Hacker Heights” by locals ever since it took first in a city-wide poll Google conducted to choose Fiber neighborhoods. That's a notable distinction, since Kansas City isn’t totally fiber-hot yet. Since the initial service installs started last November, a total of five neighborhoods around the city’s urban core have come online. Google won’t give an estimate to exactly how many households that is, but the general consensus among city leaders is about 3,000 or so people, plus some local restaurants where Google installed service to help build a buzz.
At Cupini’s, an Italian deli, for instance, there are Chromebooks set out on a counter near an espresso machine for customers to tinker with while they wait. The deli itself stayed open all night to accommodate coders. True to the City of Fountains' rep for midwestern hospitality, even those workers who snuck off for a few hours of sleep could also take the laptops home to keep working sporadically. Many of the area’s residents organized to offer free fiber-enabled rooms for hackers from as far off as San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Other attendees piled into several homes that have already been converted into what’s called the KC Startup Village, a collection of homes that formally double as business incubators. Ben Barreth is the founder of a local program called Homes for Hackers, which lets some coders live rent-free full-time as long as they promise to build while in-residence. “I said, ‘Hey would anyone like to volunteer and let a bunch of strangers stay in their house for a few nights?’ and everyone volunteered,” Barreth says.
By Saturday night, a blustery snowfall had started. Meanwhile, across town at Kauffman Labs for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, more programmers showed up to take advantage of a warm, well-lit workspace. One particularly uncommon sight: Around mid-afternoon Saturday, a dozen parka-clad coders were also working from lawn chairs in front of a home in Hacker Heights, trying to catch the last rays of sunshine before the snowstorm hit.
The space had the odd effect of fostering collaboration between teams. At one point, dozens of programmers gamely logged on to help a builder test a remote conferencing app while continuing to work on their own projects; it didn’t slow them down. And there was at least one funny technical difficulty when TooManyKittensForBroadband, the project mentioned in the headline, needed to find a traditional broadband connection to compare it side-by-side to the number of deliverable kittens per second on Google Fiber.
If TooManyKittens is any indication, perhaps the teams here missed the chance to tackle really simple projects that could be a huge leap forward for cities, even if they don’t sound that sexy. As new neighborhoods in Kansas City come online, the libraries and schools in those places will get fiber, too. One of the most successful and immediately implementable projects to come out of the weekend was a virtual software check-out portal for libraries. It’s not pie-in-the-sky thinking, but it’s progress. Here are some of the projects.
Cizzle: A 3-D web-based simulation model to help teachers make class and homework more interesting. Unless lectures can keep pace with the stellar graphics and interactive action of video games, kids will probably lose focus. Cizzle combines publicly available data from multiple academic and governmental sources to create real-time digital models of complex concepts like the solar system. Users can zoom in, change perspectives, and even increase orbit speeds to see how everything interacts. (For advanced learners: Live-streamed space images can also be shared among computers with different variables color-coded to help better visualize and discuss data.)
PlanIT Impact: An open source geo-imaging tool for designers and community groups to assess projects before they start. PlanIT Impact taps into reams of publicly available GIS data to create an intricate map overlaid with details about a specific place’s soil composition, hydrology, bikeways, employment, sidewalks, existing watersheds and streams, and public transportation lines. A planning feature lets users import potential building models and customize them, then run simulations on their impact to things like area water usage, storm water drainage, greenhouse gases, or traffic flows to test or tweak designs.
Gigaphonic: A remote music composing and recording platform. Laying down individual tracks and shipping them online takes a ton of bandwidth. At Fiber speeds, though, Gigaphonic would allow musicians to record uncompressed, high-quality wav files for each singer or instrument, then arrange it all into a master file that everyone could review and re-mix on the fly. For bands working remotely or composers seeking collaborators willing to play all of parts of their latest symphony, the best hits could also be mixed down and eventually released.
SportsPhotos.com: A live-stream and archive of multiple photos from the same event. Let’s say you are looking for the best shot of your kid at a high school track meet, or the best angle of a great play from a big game that you might have seen in-stadium or even at home on the couch, it’s hard to figure out what photographer got the shot and where to find it. SportsPhotos solves that by creating a relay that syncs a shooter’s camera with their Fiber-enabled laptop--gear alert: Currently that means each must also carry that computer in a cumbersome backpack--to upload shots as they happen into a gallery that also displays dozens or even hundreds of other time-stamped images from others at the same event. Find the one you want and buy it.
Lynx Labs: Publish, share, or print web-based 3-D images. Lynx has already created a 3-D modeling camera that can capture complicated images, like human head and torso, in roughly 30 seconds. But a fiber connection would let the company or others with the camera share their best busts, and, with a fairly simple editing suite, also re-purpose them as everything from personal avatars in video games, to more cheaply made CG in movies, or even printable pieces of 3-D art and prosthetics. That puts Hollywood-grade special effects on your laptop via the web.
[Image: Flickr user Arne Halvorsen]