Expert Voices: David Gilford on Cleanweb Hackathon for Sustainability

Can pizza-fueled hackers help solve cities’ sustainability challenges? ‘Yes,’ says guest author David Gilford of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

Solving environmental and resource challenges is not only about infrastructure projects and policy mandates. The tools and entrepreneurial spirit that spurred the rapid growth of the Information Technology (IT) industry are now being applied to sustainability, creating scalable new businesses. In New York City, an innovative approach shows just how much can be accomplished in a single weekend.

The upcoming Cleanweb Hackathon in New York (taking place September 28-30, 2012) will show how cities can stimulate innovation by combining entrepreneurship and open data. “Cleanweb” is a developing global movement that encourages the application of web, social media, and mobile technologies to address resource constraints. The “Hackathon”, a technique borrowed from web developers, is an intense weekend in which small teams build applications in just two days.


Standing room only for app demos at the NYC Cleanweb Hackathon, January 2012 (Photo credit: Jean Barmash)

By promoting transparency, the policies of cities are increasingly supplying the raw materials for private sector innovation. PlaNYC, New York City’s vision for 2030, includes bold challenges for making the city more livable and sustainable. By requiring certain buildings to benchmark their energy use, New York City recently became the first municipality in the country to publish a data set on the largest privately-owned commercial properties. By making this data public, the private sector can test and develop new approaches to efficiency, something critically important to New York, where buildings account for 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Open data can form the basis for innovation by individuals and companies alike. During the first NYC Cleanweb Hackathon in January 2012, more than one hundred participants spent a snowy weekend studying available data, as well as brainstorming to develop innovative business models and coding applications. Fifteen teams presented “hacks” to a panel of investors and government leaders, including Aneesh Chopra, the former US Chief Technology Officer. Winning teams produced tools for comparing building energy usage, selecting efficient appliances, and making it easier to purchase solar power systems.

The City also hosted Reinvent Green in June 2012, a hackathon in which municipal agencies presented participants with specific challenges related to sustainability. New York City’s second Cleanweb Hackathon this month will address both local and global challenges, through partnerships with the Carbon War Room andClimate Week 2012.

According to Blake Burris, “Chief Hacktivist” of Cleanweb Worldwide, “These hackathons demonstrate available talent and entrepreneurial interest in the world’s megacities to address the global issues of climate change and resource constraints.”

While only so much is possible in a single weekend, hackathons can stimulate longer-lasting momentum and help build communities of innovators. New York City’s Honest Buildings is a Cleanweb startup that participated in the January hackathon, using its platform to build an application to compare municipal buildings’ energy efficiency. This month, Honest Buildings raised its first round of venture capital funding and now boasts information on over 700,000 buildings worldwide, helping enable better-informed decisions about real estate.

Through hackathons, companies and individuals alike can rapidly build, test and refine approaches to solving some of the largest urban problems. These events offer the chance to quickly immerse oneself in the developing Cleanweb movement, using social, mobile and web technologies to make a positive impact. In addition to the New York Hackathon event, similar gatherings recently took place in London and Houston, with Rome and other C40 cities coming up soon. Sign up now to participate in the New York event, and be sure to join the Cleanweb discussion on Twitter by following the #cleanweb hashtag.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) is a network of large and engaged cities from around the world committed to implementing meaningful and sustainable climate-related actions locally that will help address climate change globally. Recognizing that cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, our organization’s global field staff works with city governments, supported by our technical experts across a range of program areas to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency in large cities across the world. The current chair of the C40 is Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, and 108th Mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg is President of the Board. The Steering Committee includes: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Houston, Jakarta, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul and Tokyo.