The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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April 27, 2012

Hackathon pits designers in Web-design contest

JOPLIN, Mo. — For a 36-hour stretch, Web professionals and site designers from around the region will be hard at work in City Hall, redesigning the city’s Web site.

Fueled with their favorite energy drinks and snacks, nine teams of creative professionals will put their skills to the test in a contest of HTML, jpegs, Java and data exchanges. They’ll work through meals, burn midnight oil and pound keys furiously as they collaborate and create.

By the time the weekend is over, they’ll have a working model of a new Web site for the city of Joplin. The winning team will also pocket a cash prize of $1,000.

It’s a process that speaks more toward the original definition of computer hacking -- tinkering around and seeing how something works -- instead of today’s more malicious definition.

“We’re not trying to break anything down,” said Michael Ashford, organizer of the event for Civic Plus. “We’re opening up the governmental process to the citizens that process serves. We’re allowing them to make it better.”

The Joplin Hackathon will kick off tonight with a celebration before the work begins. The competition ends at 2 p.m. Sunday -- judges will make final decisions and announce the winners during a presentation at 5 p.m. The winning site will then be hosted by Civic Plus, a company based out of Manhattan, Kan. The company is donating services over the next two years to Joplin valued at more than $1 million, Ashford said.

Ashford said the event has three goals: Creating a new site, using local talent to do the work and building innovative, useful tools that governments can use for their own Web sites.

Joplin is meant to be a case study for ways that governments can better communicate and interact with their citizens, Ashford said. Strategies from the contest will also be used to help the company’s 1,200 other clients.

The nine teams include four teams of Civic Plus employees volunteering their time; teams of college students from Southwest Baptist University, Baker University and the University of Missouri-Columnbia; JTL Web Design, of Joplin; and Intuitive Web Solutions, of Springfield.

The hackathon comes from an idea that Ashford participated in at New York City last year. Civic Plus was the only Web company asked to participate in the event, Ashford said -- most of the competitors were individuals from across the country. He was one of four from Civic Plus who worked to create a new Web site for New York City.

What they learned in the Big Apple they brought back to the Little Apple. “The city (of Manhattan, Kan.) was due for a redesign,” Ashford said. “So we ran something with a similar setup.”

But Joplin represents an opportunity to break some ground, he said.

The May 22 tornado showed that there is a need for governmental Web sites that interact with citizens, not just pass along information. Coordination of emergency services is also a key component.

Web sites of cities, boards of education and other governmental entities tend to be rigid and inflexible, Ashford said --Êit is usually structured exactly like the government itself. And those Web sites usually reflect the one-way communication that exists between governments and citizens, Ashford said.

That means a key component of Friday’s competition will interaction, or how well a government can respond to input from a citizen.

“A lot of times, there’s a big education process we take our clients through,” Ashford said. “There can be a little bit of a shock, because that’s they only way they know. What we try to foster is something where a citizen submits an issue, and they are followed up with. Maybe it’s a pothole, maybe a broken streetlight, maybe it’s feedback on an agenda item.”

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