Hacking for the public good

It’s one thing to say that the explosion of digital data can be used for public good. It’s quite another to sit down in a room for four hours, access open data files and create an application with practical uses.


View of the Wake County Parks Finder app created using the TerraHub platform.

That’s what Jeff Heard did when he attended the Triangle Open Data Day (TODD) a few weeks ago. TODD, organized by TechnologyTank.org, was a daylong event to promote open data—the idea that digital information from sources such as government agencies should be easy to access and that if it is, smart, innovative techies will use it in interesting ways.

Heard, a RENCI senior research software developer and co-founder of the startup TerraHub, is one such smart, innovative techie. He attended TODD’s hackathon activity with the goal of taking a public data set and creating an application that could transform that raw data into useful knowledge.  And he succeeded.

Heard grabbed data on Wake County parks and recreation facilities and loaded it into the TerraHub software framework that allows users to create, share, and interact with geo-referenced documents, including layers of maps and data associated with locations on the maps. In one sitting, he built a “parks finder” mobile application.

The app allows users to search for parks based on the amenities they offer. For example, if you want to entertain the kids for an afternoon, you might look for a park that offers a playground, restrooms, and picnic tables.

Heard’s work was recognized as a TODD success story. It’s also a RENCI success story by extension because TerraHub grew out of a RENCI effort to create a geoanalytics platform—essentially a system for working with geo-referenced data in an intuitive, map-based format.

Congratulations to all those who participated in TODD and to the open data movement, which shows us that the big data revolution isn’t all about loss of privacy and information overload. In good hands, hacking the vast stores of open data can benefit us all.

-Karen Green