Willmar Hack2.o: apps for bikes, fires, encrypted email and zebra mussels

grouppicOver the weekend I attended the Hack2.o in Willmar. It was hosted by WorkUp (a coworking space in the area), Kandiyohi EDC, Ridgewater College, Minnwest College and the Blandin Foundation. Many of the attendees had a connection to the local college, some were tech-interested residents and a few of us came from out of town – the Twin Cities and Iowa.

While there are similarities, each hack I attend has its own personality – especially in a rural area. The gist remains the same – to gather folks who are interested in developing technology to solution specific problems. Often there’s a civic slant and that was the case in Willmar. People came with ideas on how technology could solve local issues and four teams formed to solve the following:

  • How can I receive, save and store encrypted email in a way that keeps the contents private to the email provider?
  • How can we reduce “false” fire alarms by helping citizens tell fire departments that they are going to build a campfire?
  • How can we better manage and monitor our local, free bike share program?
  • How can we keep lakes clean by helping people identify, report and remove zebra mussels and other invasive species?

I’ll include the PowerPoints and videos from the event below and just share some high level notes. First, the event was really fun. It’s so nice to see a roomful of people who are willing (happy even!) to give up a weekend to work on projects to make their communities better. Technology is inspiring greater civic participation! Some people are passionate about an idea. Some people want to code. Some people want to practice what they are learning. (I used to be the librarian for the National Service-Learning Library so I love that doing to learn aspect.) I think the draw of techies is obvious.

The draw for non-techies is less obvious but in the land of the coders, someone who can manage a project, create a flowchart, write, present or cheerlead becomes pretty valuable. If in your real world you work (or want to work) with tech folks, I think it would be a valuable exercise in how techies collaborate. There is a lot of brainstorming, a lot of talking things through, a lot of charts. This weekend, there weren’t a lot of egos. There was a lot of listening and a lot of mutual learning. If a hack event comes to your town and you’re interested but feel you aren’t that technical – come and see what you have to offer.

On a community level, I think the draw has obvious and less obvious benefits. First, I think all of these projects will continue. So Willmar has four new tools in their arsenal. Second, a handful of us came to town. A larger handful went out, bought drinks, had a good time and would come back. Connections were made. I know I’ll stay in touch with a few – even if only via LinkedIn or Twitter but the human network is there. More importantly the local tech community got a chance to build a rapport. They have learned together and I suspect will continue to do so.

Often when we talk about digital inclusion or digital training we think about the elementary level, such as showing seniors how to use email or an iPad. But it’s important to seed the training at the graduate level too, such as learning to use Python for digital recognition. For a community the investment is having the space, hosting the event, getting people to the door. Willmar has a great space – it was nice to see it get used and I think an event like this draws in more people.


(Sorry Yellow Bikers – the video of final presentation got corrupted – my fault!)

This entry was posted in bbc, Digital Divide, Government, MN, New Media by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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