Hacking for a Purpose

Houston Hackathon poster

Hacking often has a negative connotation in the cyber sphere. The City of Houston, however, is combating that stereotype by hosting the annual “City of Houston Open Invitational Hackathon” competition to solve problems within the city. This year, a team of Aggies walked away from the grueling 24-hour, 18-team competition with first place.

The team included:

  • Naga Raghuveer Modala, a PhD candidate in Biological and Agricultural Engineering
  • Elvis Takow, a PhD candidate in Ecosystem Science and Management
  • Jonathan Farmer, a former student in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Sciences and current employee of the City of Stafford
  • Reza Hosseini, a Masters student in Computer Science
  • Frank Bracco, employee of the City of Houston

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and her staff selected the team’s project, City of Houston Blighted Properties, as a top project that they will further explore for future implementation. The website would allow citizens to gather information about Houston’s blighted properties, which are commercial or residential premises, which have been declared vacant, uninhabitable and hazardous.

“City council members and citizens of Houston regularly ask for information about blighted properties and nuisances,” said Takow. “To do so, they have to contact City staff and even wait on public records requests. Using City of Houston Blighted Properties, we wanted to allow citizens and Council members a more proactive way to see what’s going on in their neighborhood.”


The team working on the City of Houston Blighted Properties project.

Takow and Modala have found their programming skills useful as both a hobby to interact with their tech-savvy peers and in their academic research. Both work at the Map and GIS library as GIS consultants.

“We competed in the hackathon primarily for the networking opportunities and also as a means of determining how we matched up technically in the world of GIS and web-based technology,” said Modala. “Winning this competition gives us a bit more prospective about our GIS and programming skill set and underscores the significance and application of these skills in real world situations.”

The Houston Hackathon is an event that engages hackers to help solve the City of Houston’s problems through applications and building the city’s overall technological infrastructure. The hackathon was sponsored by the Boniuk Foundation, a homegrown organization that promotes religious and cultural tolerance. It was also part of National Day of Civic Hacking, a global movement to raise awareness of civic innovation.

Congratulations to the each of these Aggie hackers!

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