Web programmers hack way to future city

Manchester hosted a 24-hour software coding competition over the weekend to find the best new uses of public data aimed at improving the lives of the city's residents – applications ranging from ranking schools to finding the nearest toilet.

The event on Friday and Saturday was held at Manchester Digital Laboratory in Edge Street in the Northern Quarter.

More than 120 data sets were provided by a range of organisations, among them Manchester City Council, NHS Manchester, Transport for Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, Salford City Council, Trafford Council and Marketing Manchester.

As well as locally based coders, other entrants travelled from Lancaster, North East, North Wales and elsewhere to take part in the public service programming session.

The overall winners were James Rutherford and Ashleigh Herriot from Newcastle, with their Data Crossfader idea. Rutherford said: "Our Data Crossfader allows you to boil down any of the location data sets – for instance, trees across Manchester – into a frequency / height graph, overlaid onto a 2D map of Manchester so that the graph stands out in 3D. It then allows you to take a second data set and do the same. You can crossfade between the two maps to highlight correlations – trees versus population health – or black spots needing attention."

Rutherford and Herriot won £4,600 to pay for further development time and will work with Manchester City Council to progress the application towards publication.

The open data movement involves authorities releasing editable files of information for computer programmers to find ways of better organising it, applying it to everyday life. Transport for Greater Manchester was among the first local organisations to make its data open, providing bus timetable information in 2010.

Rutherford added: "It's early days for open data but I think the fact that the Manchester Hackathon should help data suppliers derive meaning in their sets is compelling."

Manchester City Council is now committed to releasing as much public data as possible as long as it does not contain private information about individuals or conflict with commercial interests of suppliers and partners.

Cllr Nigel Murphy, lead member for digital and environment, said: "This hackathon event is just the first part of an ongoing challenge to ensure that Manchester is in the front rank of open data-friendly cities. Manchester City Council is committed to being an open and transparent council but this event is not just about us but also our public sector partners who are embracing open data."

Among those taking part in the Manchester Hackathon were five teams of under 21-year-olds. The prize for best idea in the under 21 category was won by 19-year-old Manchester Metropolitan University student Bilawal Hameed, whose Bus Tracker app enables people to find their nearest bus stop and gives information about the next bus.
The Manchester Hackathon was partially funded by the European Community's ICT Policy Support Programme.

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