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Taking Hack-tion for Food, Farmers and America

Code for America Northern Virginia Brigade members work on challenges at the NSF event in the foreground while USDA subject matter experts discuss Farmers Market data in the background (right side). Our challenge yielded at least eight different projects across the country. Photo by Tim Koeth.

Code for America Northern Virginia Brigade members work on challenges at the NSF event in the foreground while USDA subject matter experts discuss Farmers Market data in the background (right side). Our challenge yielded at least eight different projects across the country. Photo by Tim Koeth.

This past weekend, civic hackers across the country took action—or hack-tion—when they gathered together to use their coding, designing and tech-making powers for good.  Armed with a passion for data and working under a framework that focused their energies on solving civic problems, over 11,000 individuals set out to make a difference at 95 different events in 83 cities and communities across the nation.

At USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, we serve many communities in a variety of ways.  From our support of farmers markets and food hubs to our work with industry stakeholders, we focus on supporting the business and marketing side of American agriculture.  So, when we first heard about the National Day of Civic Hacking, we knew immediately that we wanted to participate.

We developed a challenge that drew on our newly released Farmers Market Directory API and proposed mashing it up with other available datasets to create a richer farmers market experience.  We hoped to see weather or transportation mash-ups and social media tie-ins, things that would help connect more farmers with customers and more communities with fresh food options.

The response to our challenge was amazing.  Four of us from AMS were on the ground in Arlington, Virginia for the kick-off of an event hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Arlington County, City of Alexandria and Code for America on Saturday. Over the weekend eight experts from USDA, including a nutrition expert from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) were available to answer questions via phone, email, video chat and twitter for the entire two-day event.

The winners of the Northern Virginia event combined transportation data and our Farmers Market Directory into one app, giving visitors more options for getting to and from area markets.  Photo by Tim Koeth.

The winners of the Northern Virginia event combined transportation data and our Farmers Market Directory into one app, giving visitors more options for getting to and from area markets. Photo by Tim Koeth.

One group at the Northern Virginia event we attended decided to tackle the Backyard Poultry Farmer challenge issued by our sister agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).  Another looked at adding farmers market listings to the existing Snapfresh.org app, so SNAP recipients would see farmers markets included when they looked for the five closest locations to use their SNAP benefits. The winners of the event—Nina B., Pierce H., and Jason W.—combined transportation data and our Farmers Market Directory into one app, giving visitors more options for getting to and from area markets.  Their prototype locates the markets near you and finds the nearest Capital Bikeshare stations, metro rail or metro bus locations and determines the best route based on your needs.

Throughout the weekend we fielded questions about our challenge, our directory data and API from groups across the country—Tampa, Florida; Ashville, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois—just to name a few.  Conversations with developers continue today—via email, hackpad and Twitter.

So far, we’ve seen at least 10 projects that worked with our data, and eight that responded to our challenge in some way, with two of them winning first place at their events. Here are some examples:

  • Tampa, FL – Andrew M. and David M.’s Farmers Market Rails app lets a registered user post their farm’s or market’s products, location, times and generates a link view the market on Google maps when shown in search results.  Future plans include Twitter and Facebook integration. Their code is available on github.
  • South Elgin, IL (near Chicago) – Justin L., going solo, created an iCalendar feed of local markets. Give your own zip code a try.
  • Chicago, IL: A diverse team of adults and youth with all different areas of expertise worked on a project that focused on food access problems faced by Chicago’s youth. You can read more about their project on the event site.
  • Sacramento, CA: A local challenge sponsored by www.greenwisejv.org proposed to make a mobile app that would make a “game” of eating locally.  Each day an ingredient would be featured, along with local sources (farmers markets, restaurants, etc), challenging the user to seek out the new ingredient from a grower, vendor, or area restaurant that serves locally grown foods.

If you or someone you know worked on our challenge, email me (Shayla.bailey@ams.usda.gov) or give us a shout out on twitter @USDA_AMS.  A big thank you to all of the organizers across the country who made these events happen and to the hackers across the nation whose energy and results will continue to inspire us.

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