Metro Parks Tacoma and GeoEngineers Host Largest Hackathon in South Sound
Blair Deaver, software engineering manager at GeoEngineers, gives instructions to one of the hackathon teams. Blair and GeoEngineers colleagues Tonya Kauhi and Layne Alfonso were all influential in helping Metro Parks plan the event.

This weekend, Metro Parks Tacoma held a “hackathon” in an effort to harness technology to better connect Tacoma residents with local parks. Metro Parks is an independent government agency overseeing parks and park services in the Tacoma, Washington area. It partnered with local companies and organizations, including GeoEngineers Inc. and the University of Washington Tacoma, to host this creative technical-idea workshop on Friday and Saturday.

About 75 participants on 12 teams competed to develop and present a technology-driven way to improve access and interaction with area parks. The teams formed organically on Friday afternoon as a diverse group of professional software developers, coders, geospatial professionals, user experience designers and students brainstormed new ideas and then backed their favorite concepts. The teams competed for a cash prize of $1,750 and the chance to see some of their ideas implemented by Metro Parks.

Joe Brady, chief strategy officer for Metro Parks Tacoma, says the key question of the hackathon is simple, “How can we engage with our audience in a better way?” he says. “That’s one of the goals of the hackathon, to bring a diverse group of people who have a really large pool of knowledge and bring it to the specific question of how do we improve access to parks and recreation in the city of Tacoma.”

The idea for the Metro Parks Hackathon came out of conversations between Brady and Layne Alfonso, market development associate at GeoEngineers.

Beach PlasticThe winning team developed an app to help park users find "Tacoma Rocks," hand-painted rocks hidden throughout the region by local artists.

A variety of local companies and agencies attended or sponsored the hackathon, including Pierce Transit (county transit authority), and Pierce County. Sponsors included Turner Construction, Gordon Thomas Honeywell, CloudPWR, BCRA Architects, Surge Tacoma, Adventures by Appointment, University of Washington Tacoma, New Tech Tacoma, National Recreation and Park Association, ESRI and Washington Hometown.

Teams worked on their unique ideas late into the night on Friday, and by lunchtime on Saturday they were ready to present their concepts. A panel of judges from Metro Parks Tacoma selected the winning team for their mobile application called “Parks ROCKS,” which helps people find and tag hand-painted rocks throughout Tacoma parks.

“Tacoma Rocks,” as they’re called, are already a local phenomenon. A small community of artists and outdoor enthusiasts hide the painted rocks in public locations for people to find. Successful rock hunters may choose to keep the tiny piece of art, or hide it again for others to enjoy. The application is designed to track these locations and make it easy for newcomers to get outside and join the city-wide scavenger hunt.

Metro Parks Tacoma will use the winning concept, and other ideas from the hackathon, as potential starting points for new applications, web features, and other technological improvements. John Laughery, one of the event’s planners and GIS supervisor at Metro Parks Tacoma, has high expectations for the ideas coming out of the hackathon.