Solving Civic Problems with Apps

A growing number of cities are launching innovation challenges, or hackathons, that call upon citizens to create tech-savvy solutions to civic problems

What Happened?

A growing number of cities are launching innovation challenges, or hackathons, that call upon citizens to create tech-savvy solutions to civic problems.

Idea Challenge

The Technology Forum of Delaware recently held the 2nd Annual Idea Challenge that gathered brought teams of citizens and tech experts to brainstorm innovative ideas to transform the way communities function and public services are provided to residents. The Idea Challenge welcomed any interested participants to think creatively and passionately to solve familiar problems.

During the event, small teams of 5-6 technologists and innovators collaborated on solving one of two challenges:

  • What can be done in Wilmington to support a business owner who is considering moving to or expanding their business in the city using new technology and better information?
  • How can new technology be leveraged to create the lifestyle and a community with entertainment, culture and volunteer opportunities that make Wilmington an attractive place for young professionals?

The winning proposal came from a local startup that offered a walkable initiative centered around multiple solar-powered kiosks placed at key locations throughout Wilmington. These kiosks would offer a variety of benefits for residents including a docking station to charge devices, a source of public information, access to heat maps and a shared camera showcasing popular sites. The kiosks would provide users with a glimpse into a specific sector of the city before they venture out to explore it.

Global Urban Datafest

On a much larger scale, the Global Urban Datafest was also recently held in major cities worldwide. The multi-city hackathon offers a weekend of intense collaborative coding involving developers, data scientists, urban experts, journalists and other public sector specialists. By encouraging diverse teams, the event aims to generate new ideas that are both tech-savvy and easily implemented into community living.

Because modern technology has created immense volumes of data available to local governments, customized technology is needed to optimize the information and transform it into actionable insight to improve quality of life and delivery of services. The goal of the datafest is to analyze existing city data and build software and hardware that can use and produce even more accurate information to support decision making.


After innovators have brainstormed and piloted their solutions, new apps have been introduced to improve and enhance public agencies.

Improve Detroit

The city of Detroit launched a 311 app that allows residents to report a problem within the city directly to the appropriate government department or agency and be notified when their concern has been addressed.

The app can be used on mobile devices or computers for optimal convenience and instantly connects the resident to the department best equipped to remedy the situation. To further increase accountability, the mayor will receive a copy of the work order submitted as well, CBS Detroit reported.

Breathe Project

In Pittsburgh, high definition cameras are monitoring air pollution levels and registering the data into an online system. Users can access the app to check on air pollution activity and visualize all collected data online to become more aware of their living environment, New Scientist reported.

The goal of the app is to not only monitor pollution levels, but provide residents with transparent information that can be used to inform groups and support lobbying efforts for more clean energy resources and strategies, New Scientist reported.


San Antonio tried an app designed to keep streets safer from crime through an instant notification system. The ShotSpotter app alerted police whenever gunshots were fired in the community, and reported the number of rounds fired and location of the shots directly to smartphones.

San Antonio was one of 90 cities across the country that leveraged the ShotSpotter technology utilizing acoustical sensors hidden discretely throughout the city to pick up on gunfire sounds. The acoustics are triangulated and pinpointed on a map so police know exactly where shots were fired in near real-time.

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