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Geo:Code 2015 Projects

Here is a summary of the eight projects that were worked on and presented at Hennepin County’s 2015 Geo:Code Code-a-thon.

Accessibility Guidelines for Maps

At an event named Geo:Code, it’s no surprise most of the projects involved a map in some way. This is also not surprising given how useful maps can be for presenting location based information, especially digital maps that can dynamically adjust what and how they present. Unfortunately, maps often present usability problems for people with visual impairments, and have thus far seen little energy put into improving their accessibility. This team decided to work on a set of guidelines for digital maps as a way to prevent these usability issues.

Over the weekend, the Accessibility Guidelines for Maps team looked through existing research on accessibility practices and technologies. Out of this research came a set of principles for developers wishing to use maps, such as:

Currently, the team is sharing these principles with developers via a wiki on the Open Twin Cities GitHub organization. The team’s goal is to eventually move this wiki to the Maptime GitHub organization to gain visibility in the national community of developers who create maps.

Broader Needs Assessment

Often times, the solution to a problem isn’t to build a new tool, but to reuse an existing tool.

The Broader Needs Assessment team spent the weekend figuring out how to shorten the time residents spend seeking out Hennepin County services. Currently, a resident has to travel to a Hennepin County location and speak with a county employee to find out what county services they may need or qualify for, and to schedule follow up visits - a time consuming process that could be improved upon for many with an online tool. As it turns out, Hennepin County already has this tool in the form of an internal Broader Needs Assessment website used by county staff.

With much of the required technology already being used by Hennepin County, this team focused on figuring out how to make the Broader Needs Assessment tool accessible and usable to the public. This involved defining some technical additions to the tool to be more user friendly, which the team presented at the end of the weekend. However, the technical barriers to public access are small compared to the administrative barriers. As such, this team spent quite a bit of time researching and planning policy and business arguments to present to County leadership on why the Broader Needs Assessment tool should be made publicly available.

Digital Time Travel

There is a lot of historical information out there about locations. For any given address in Hennepin County, there might be photographs, plat maps, census data, purchase information, construction information, business records, or any of a variety of other types of information from the past. This can be extremely interesting and useful information about the history of a location. The Digital Time Travelers spent the Geo:Code weekend exploring where all of this information is and how it can be investigated.

In their exploration, the Digital Time Travelers created a concept for a general historical information investigation web application. Such an application would pull and mash up data from multiple sources to create summaries and displays of historical information about locations. Researchers, genealogists, social science analysts, or anybody interested in the history of a place would be able to find a location and view information associated with that location, organized by the time.

The Digital Time Travelers discovered some significant issues that would need to be addressed before or during the development of their application. Historical information about locations is scattered across a lot of organizations, and a lot of media. In many cases, data is currently in non-digital media. They also found that the availability, integrity, and security of data can vary a lot by time, medium, and managing organization. Finally, licensing on available data might prevent or discourage the reuse of historical information.

Hennepin Mobility App

Datasets that cover locations, transportation, or almost anything, often overlook the needs of people with disabilities. This can make it difficult for people with disabilities to plan meetings or visits, and can also prevent the operators of buildings or the governments that manage public space from realizing that a given location has accessibility issues.

To address this issue, the Hennepin Mobility App team decided to build a crowd-sourced dataset of their own, and a mobile app to enable Twin Cities residents to use and contribute to this dataset. Their goal is to create a dataset that can supplement existing datasets, so that applications (including their own app) can pull accessibility data from their dataset and mash it up with the information in existing datasets. As the team said, this accessibility dataset could cover any location. And by making it crowd-sourced, the Hennepin Mobility App team is also creating a Yelp for Accessibility by enabling people to comment and vote on locations based on their accessibility.

By the end of the weekend, the team had already put together a prototype Android app that included information on food shelves, farmers markets, Hennepin County facilities, and more. The prototype also included graphics for locations based on their accessibility ratings.

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

There are a lot of things for families to do in the Twin Cities for low or no cost. Yet, these events and organizations can sometimes be hard to find, and there currently is no website focused on helping Twin Cities families to find fun and inexpensive activities. The Kids Just Wanna Have Fun team wants to fix that by creating a responsive website that helps Twin Cities families find free or low-cost activities.

This team spent much of its time focused on designing with an understanding their problem and their users. Thus, the team spent time defining what an “event” is, looking at sites like EventBrite and What’s up 612 for inspiration, and a lot of brainstorming. The team then organized everything they found and came up with into various sets of principles, needs, and wants for their application.

With user experience ideas in order, prototyping began. Continuing their focus on designing a user experience, the team started with paper prototypes to express what they wanted and test out their ideas. From there, the team developed a set of digital wireframes to guide future development of their site.

Minnesota Bike Ways / The Bike App

Biking is strong in the Twin Cities, thanks to miles of trails and lanes, a big community, and lots of bike focused organizations. There are also a number of applications out there for bikers, but none that really meet the needs of Twin Cities bikers. The Minnesota Bike Ways team set out to fix that, and was able to deploy a responsive prototype based on Open Street Maps and Leaflet.

In building their prototype, the Minnesota Bike Ways team put a lot of thought into identifying the needs of Twin Cities bikers, including:

Addressing many of these needs is now part of future work the team intends to perform on their prototype. In addition, spurred by the work and requests of the Minnesota Bike Ways team, Hennepin County is now working to add data on County bike trails to their open data portal.

Parcels Through Time

We’re in a building boom in the Twin Cities. Transit, buildings, and stadiums are being constructed everywhere, prompting property owners near all this construction to ask, what is going to happen to the value and taxes of their property? The Parcels Through Time team aimed to find data and build a tool that could help owners investigate that question, and did produce a rough prototype web application that visualizes and animates the changes in a property’s valuation over time.

During Geo:Code, the Parcels Through Time team did find useful data for investigating property values over time. Though, in the words of one team member, “thank you for the data, and yes, we want more”. The team found that the availability and quality of data can differ a lot depending on the jurisdiction providing the data, the time frame the data covers, the information the data is meant to represent, and more.

This team also looked at existing tools for investigating property value data over time, but they wanted more. More data, more speed, more general. Thus, the team started on a prototype of a general, map based, property value explorer capable of visualizing and animating changes in property over time. Along the way, team members learned about QGIS, Leaflet, and how to prepare data for these tools.

Urban Agricultural Suitability

Urban farming is an increasingly popular way to produce local food, and a novel way to use land that otherwise sits vacant. The Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council has been working on policies and tools to promote urban farming in Minneapolis, including a tool to help urban farmers, policy makers, and property owners identify suitable vacant lots for urban farming. During Geo:Code, the Urban Agricultural Suitability team worked to further build out this tool.

Over the weekend, this team focused on adding features that would help government officials decide which government owned vacant lots would be good candidates for urban farming. This led to the creation of an interactive map of vacant lots in Minneapolis, with accompanying information about the size, zoning, estimated market value, and owner of the lot. The map can also be filtered by property type, zoning code, ward, and type of owner.

The team also created some long term feature goals for the application. To improve on the tool’s ability to help individuals and organizations to find suitable lots for farming, the team wants to add information from the state and county on contamination, add locations of fire hydrants to help in watering, and include data on the solar suitability of a parcel.