Young coders are being encouraged to hack data belonging to city authorities in a project that seeks to bring huge benefits to city management as well as engage smart young people more with civic matters.

Future Hacks or Hackathons attract young developers to a city for a weekend with an open brief to solve any problem they like. They are not set a particular task to do. At the last one, held in Glasgow, Scotland, participants were given a challenge: do something to improve public safety.

 Young winners of the Glasgow Hackathon

The winning team (above, presenting their idea) of developers devised a way of discovering the location of individuals calling emergency services from mobile phones that is more precise than using the triangulation method of mobile phone masts.

They devised a mobile app that can be used to send short text messages, with an attached picture of a local landmark plus geographic data, to one of the services in question. They can respond asynchronously and use the platform to publish announcements via mobile notification.

Other attendees came up with a huge number of other good ideas. That was in February. The next one is in one week, from 21-23 March and this time the topic is energy and energy efficiency. Participants will be challenged to come up with a way to use existing data sources to manage energy use in a better way.

Teams compete for a £20,000 prize.

A month later, a third Hackathon will tackle health issues and factors affecting life expectancy, search as diet, crime, drinking and other habits that might in some way be unintentionally encouraged by the city environment.

Then, in May, the theme will be transport, looking at how open data can improve transport efficiency and mobility. Data, maps and acts are provided by the city authorities on a special website You can find more information about this project there.

The Future Cities Demonstrator Programme

The project is the brainchild of the British Technology Strategy Board's Future Cities Demonstrator Programme, and Glasgow City Council. The Technology Strategy Board is a UK government-financed scientific and technical program to further innovation.

For example at the end of February it hosted an event 'building a resilient future' about how to tackle challenges such as flooding, overheating and other weather extremes in the built environment caused by climate change. 

The Future Cities Demonstrator Program in Glasgow is a result of an award of £24 million given by the TSB as part of its Catapult project to show cities how they can integrate various systems such as transport, energy, waste and governance to work more efficiently and prepare for climate change.

29 British cities were each awarded £50,000 to develop feasibility studies (see list below). Glasgow's was the first to bear fruit, but other cities - Peterboro, London and Bristol - are also taking their projects forwards with grants of £3 million each.

Of all the challenges identified by cities the biggest is environmental (88%) followed by economy (86%) then transport and health & well-being at 66% with social aspects coming in at 58% and energy at 50%.

Engaging young people's creativity

The Glasgow Hackathons are cool because they mark one of the few attempts to bring in young people to tackle these problems. Young people have plenty of energy, plenty of opinions and can think outside the box.

By putting them in a pressured situation over a weekend, where they work in teams to deadlines and get very little sleep, the resulting sense of urgency drives creativity. The end results are solutions that can be simply and quickly applied, compared to the usual pace of change at which city authorities operate.

Future problems facing cities

Each city in the Demonstrator Program identifies different kinds of problems. For example Bristol expects to see a 31% rise in population my 2028 and is scratching its head on how to grow sustainably and meet the needs of its future population. Other cities worry about ageing populations: Milton Keynes finds that it's over 65 population is expected to increase by 120% over the next two decades.

Birmingham is concerned that almost half of its population are aged under 35 which makes it one of the youngest cities in Europe.

Economy and enterprise: Leicester: In 2010, the employment rate was 61% of the working age population, significantly lower than the national average of 70.5%.
Environment: Ipswich: Established a target to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60% by 2025.
TransportStoke-on-Trent: Congestion significantly affects public transport reliability and journey speed.
Health and wellbeingBristol: Changing and growing health needs of citizens. Social Glasgow: Last year 40% of citizens reported an incident of antisocial behaviour.
EnergySouthend-on-Sea: Rising energy costs leading to an increase in fuel poverty. 
Safety and securityLeeds-Bradford: Key infrastructure and housing vulnerable to flooding.

Glasgow's most pressing problem is that it has the lowest life expectancy in the UK. Female life expectancy at birth is 78 years and male life expectancy 71.6 years, comparatively average for the UK of 82.3 and 78.2 years respectively. Within the city there are also striking differences. Parts have a life expectancy of just 54 years, 28 years shorter than that of a man in a richer area only 15 minutes drive away.

Different themes are being tackled in different cities, which will find ways of working with businesses, particularly start-ups that have cutting-edge ideas looking for exciting applications. The Future Cities competition will test ideas in real-world situations before going on to large scale applications, in the process creating a market for them.

A spreading idea

The idea is proving so successful that it is being replicated in other countries. You can follow on Twitter using the #FutureCities. One recent event was a UK-Singapore link up, where, amongst many others, @Tim_Stonor presented the idea illustrated on the right, of using predictive analysis with Space Syntax technology for urban planning and spatial economics.

 location of UK future cities feasibility study participantsThe 29 UK cities involved are:

  • Belfast
  • Birmingham 
  • Brighton and Hove 
  • Bristol 
  • Cambridge 
  • Cardiff 
  • Coventry 
  • Derby
  • Dundee 
  • Glasgow 
  • Greater London Authority
  • Enfield 
  • Ipswich 
  • Leeds and Bradford
  • Leicester 
  • London Borough of Camden
  • Manchester 
  • Milton Keynes 
  • Newcastle 
  • Nottingham 
  • Peterborough 
  • Plymouth 
  • Salford 
  • Sheffield 
  • Southampton 
  • Southend-on-Sea 
  • Stoke-on-Trent 
  • Swindon 
  • Warrington