Agency stages 'hack-a-thons' in bid to make energy data cool

A group of mostly under-35 guys and women gathered one Friday evening at 1776, a technology startup space in Washington, D.C.

Huddled amid towers of pizza boxes and tubs of soda and energy drinks, a brown-haired woman in a T-shirt proclaiming "I'm not lazy, I am energy efficient" chatted with a long-haired man in a green hoodie and Google Glass. An over-40 man in a rumpled button-down shirt and tie intently listened to a guy wearing a backpack with both shoulder straps engaged.

An attendee in a flannel shirt eyed the pizza warily. "Hmm, I don't eat bread, so I hope there is something else," he mumbled. There was: chips and cookies.

Welcome to the Department of Energy's first public "hack-a-thon."

Surrounded by whiteboards, laptops and signs like "Keep calm and Hack," 40 or so people would spend the next 24 hours in small teams brainstorming and writing code in hopes of creating the Twitter for energy data.

Or, if they failed to hatch a blockbuster program, they could hope to at least win the $1,500 top prize and meet interesting people who assembled after getting notice on social media less than two days earlier.

In front of a mural depicting the famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as a boxing match, "Thrilla on the River," front-end designers and back-end developers mingled with students, engineers, economists, a U.S. EPA employee and a consultant for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, among others.

Talk between participants was marked by programming languages -- Ruby on Rails, Python and D3.

"The best part is to see how different people with different skills each do their part," said Seif Kobrosly, a mobile developer in Booz Allen Hamilton's Strategic Innovation Group who's been attending hack-a-thons since 2010.


While incubating the next killer application, or app, would be exciting, DOE's Charles Worthington said the hack-a-thon's main goal is to spread the word about data sets on energy supplies and consumption by creating application program interfaces (APIs).

The APIs allow programmers to develop apps that might make energy efficiency and data easy and appealing to people who avoid opaque spreadsheets and dull websites packed with numbers.

An API is like the order counter at a store. A program tells the API what it wants, and the API then sorts through data, grabs the ordered item and delivers it. Or the API tells the program the requested item is unavailable and to try a different order.

The API allows the data to be accessible but remain under government control, meeting privacy concerns. The programmer can then present the information to the consumer in the most useful, accessible form.

"It increases availability and familiarity," Worthington said. "That is why the private sector uses hack-a-thons a lot."

Real-world results

Worthington, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission and founder of Web and mobile design startup Gray Duck Labs, is a White House presidential innovation fellow assigned to work on the Open Data Initiative at DOE.

The fellowship program recruits "top innovators" from the private sector, nonprofit and academia for six- to 13-month stints to focus on specific challenges like data, disaster response and recovery, streamlining bureaucracy, and access to government services.

The hack-a-thon follows another DOE contest last year on the best ideas for using energy data to solve practical problems.

Several winners started businesses based on their submissions. Second-place finisher Craig Isakow recently sold his company, Melon Power, to Wegowise, an energy efficiency data analysis and consulting firm. He is working for Wegowise now as director of commercial solutions. Melon Power uses building performance data to make it easier to identify energy efficiency upgrades and submit paperwork to be certified under DOE's Energy Star program.

DOE is hosting three more hack-a-thons this month in San Diego; Valley Forge, Pa.; and Cambridge, Mass. In March, the agency is awarding a total of $100,000 in prizes for the best apps submitted by designers who use the agency's data sets to "help solve a problem in a unique way."

Nick Sinai, deputy chief technology officer in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the crowd that government data is "fuel for private-sector utilization."

Plus, Sinai added, "the government has personal information that you deserve to have back."

The White House has prioritized getting federal agency data to the public as part of its Open Data Initiative, providing gigabytes of government data from various agencies to spur innovation and business. The model is the millions of apps and services created from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather data and the government's global positioning system (GPS).

In that spirit, Worthington announced to hack-a-thon participants that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) had just released its own API making dozens of years' worth of oil, natural gas, electricity and other energy supply and consumption data available for the hack-a-thon.

The news was less stunning than it could have been, perhaps, as many of the attendees had never heard of EIA or had any familiarity with the different data sets DOE was offering.

In order to win the contest, teams have to use at least one of five DOE data sets or APIs in their program -- EIA, Green Button, the Home Energy Score, the Buildings Performance Database or the Commercial Building Energy Asset Score -- or build an app based on the ideas from the first competition (see sidebar).

Black Sheep

Twenty-four hours after gathering for the first time, the teams reassembled to present their apps at 1776, which was then littered with coffee cups and a bottle of wine and held the aroma of warm mayonnaise and stale sandwiches. The numbers of the participants and their upkeep had dwindled a bit.

After hours of frantic programming, API Heroes, Green Doge, FitGrid and several of the final 12 teams ran into problems in their presentations through poor time management and technical glitches in synchronizing different software, computers and mobile devices.

Doug Phung, a developer at data visualization firm Ringtail Design and a member of Green Doge, advised future participants: "Test your presentation and don't use Prezi," a software presentation program. It was Phung's first hack-a-thon, but he said he would be interested to try others now.

Phung and his team had developed a mobile app called Cannonball that would allow friends to compete against each other in a virtual cross-country race of vehicles powered by real-life energy savings. A player starts with a scooter, but if certain energy efficiency goals are reached, a player would get an upgrade to a golf cart and eventually to a Tesla.

The eventual winner of the hack-a-thon was a team named Black Sheep. The advantage of presenting next to last, a solid concept and a polished presentation earned this team of seven -- the largest team at the competition -- its peers' admiration and the $1,500.

The winners were picked through community judging on a 1-to-10-point scale for quality of concept, quality of execution and use of feature data sets.

The team's application aims to help protect consumers against buying a house that is a "black sheep" -- the place that consumes the most energy in a neighborhood when adjusted for size. The inefficient house is represented on the map by a cute cartoon black sheep and is based on an idea from the first contest, EIA's API, the Home Energy Score and real estate company Zillow's housing sales map.

The team roster included five Booz Allen Hamilton employees -- including Kobrosly -- who volunteered to participate in the hack-a-thon in response to an email from Ron Sokolov, a senior associate of the firm's Strategic Innovation Group. The team members hadn't met before the competition.

"They were so jazzed and pumped," Sokolov said in a telephone interview after the competition.

The team's experience has spurred the firm to examine policies that would support or encourage employees to participate in these types of events more, Sokolov said.

Black Sheep included two mobile application developers, Kobrosly and Adil Kadir; a management consultant and engineer with expertise in energy efficiency, Lowell Usrey; a data analytics scientist, Mehdi Esmail; and a veteran engineer with 30 years' experience in the energy field, Tom Gannon.

The two team members from outside the firm were Leonardo Petry, a developer at FiddleFly, a website design company -- a last-minute addition after his own team dissolved -- and Dan Klothe from Skyline Innovations, a solar financing company.

The Black Sheep members said they planned to keep working on their project to submit it to the larger competition in March.

"Oh, and we would love to work with WattZ and Home Score," they announced at the end of their presentation. Team WattZ took second place with an app that would estimate the utility bill of a house on the market, and Home Score was an app from the team Energy Stars that would make it easier to submit paperwork to get a Home Energy Score.

Moving on

The number of teams and demos, the potential forward collaboration, and overall ideas were exciting to see for this first hack-a-thon, Worthington said.

"I'm impressed," he said, with some relief in his voice.

His praise was seconded by two other presidential innovation fellows: Matthew Theall, formerly a technology strategist at Intel Corp., and John Teeter, most recently a chief scientist for People Power, a software company enabling remote control and management of connected devices from mobile devices.

After the winners were announced, the stuffy room cleared pretty quickly, but participants said they would tinker with the energy data again.

Making the APIs easier to work with would probably attract more programmers to working with the energy data, Tim Burke, another member of Green Doge and a developer with Phung at Ringtail Design, said as he packed up his backpack.

"That is why [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] has tons of apps," Burke said. "It is easy to work with even though their customer service is not so good."

One veteran hacker looked on the bright side: "At least," she said, "I didn't lose to a team of 9-year-olds this time."

Click here to view the 12 projects from the D.C.-based hack-a-thon.

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