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Zillow Chairman Rich Barton and former U.S. Deputy CTO Nick Sinai kicked off a weekend hackathon Friday night where 400+ developers are being tasked to come up with solutions for first-time homebuyers, low-income renters and senior citizens to find a home that meets their needs.

This hackathon demonstrates an interesting collaboration between the private and public sector, with datasets provided by Zillow, Socrata and a newly-released set of HUD geospatial data released specifically for this event on topics like federal housing programs, apartment buildings and transit information.

Rich Barton - Hack Housing
Zillow Chairman and Co-Founder Rich Barton

Barton started the evening by crediting open government data as both the inspiration and reason that they were able to create Zillow. “The algorithm for the Zestimate, which is the estimate of value that we place on every home in the country, was written long ago by Stan Humphries. He was able to write that because we had access to public data,and what people paid for a home and the tax assessment of that home was deemed to be public information.”

The practice of redlining, where banks would identify bad neighborhoods where they didn’t want to make loans, ultimately gave rise to the public data sets we see today. According to Barton, “This (redlining) happened frequently enough that we as a society rose up and said this is not fair. We are going to open all of this information up because when we shine sunshine into dark corners, all the nasties crawl out. All the mold dries up because we the people can see the data. It was really that opening up of government data that gave us the idea for Zillow.”

Nick Sinai - Hack Housing
Former U.S. Deputy CTO Nick Sinai talks at Hack Housing

Sinai pointed to GPS and weather data as the canonical examples of where government data has inspired entrepreneurial success. “GPS was designed to precision-target and win wars, and yet Ronald Reagan and then President Clinton made it open to the world, and now we have so much innovation on our smartphones, but also unexpected innovation. I think that’s really the whole point and what gets me so passionate about it, is there is some entrepreneur selling dog collars with GPS. That’s not the kind of thing that when the defense department was thinking about the GPS system that they were thinking this kind of information signal could be made available.”

Sinai also pointed to the 2013 Executive Order mandating open and machine-readable government information as an impetus for change at federal agencies. “HUD is very passionate about affordable housing. That’s why they’re here and they have a lot of great data that they’re bringing to the table. They have some ideas, they have some problem statements, and they have a lot of great data and APIs, but they realize that they can’t accomplish or they can get farther towards their mission with both social and for-profit entrepreneurs. NOAA collects and creates 20TB of weather data a day, yet only makes 2TB available. Census has all of this great economic and demographic data, and you have to protect the privacy for some census data, but there are other parts that are really fantastic. How can that be fuel for all of the great things that you guys are doing?”

Crowd of developers at Hack Housing: Empowering Smarter Decisions
Crowd of developers at Hack Housing: Empowering Smarter Decisions

Both Sinai and Barton pointed to the focus on digital services from the government as a source of future innovation. According to Sinai, “I can say, from the federal government’s perspective, there’s really some exciting things happening with the focus on digital services. Healthcare.gov was an important learning lesson and catalyst. You see with the foundation of the U.S. Digital Service, new digital service teams at the VA and other places, the rise of 18F. You really see this push for user-focused digital services. Part of that is open data and part of that is APIs. I hope that we see more read-write APIs so that you can actually see ecosystems, much the same way that TurboTax lets you securely send your information to the IRS. You can imagine more secure ecosystems of companies building all kinds of customizations and securely transacting with the federal government.”

Barton pointed to his vision of direct democracy, powered by digital technology. “I actually think that direct democracy is coming at some point. I think we as citizens are going to much more connected and empowered. We all have secure devices where we can have our voices heard about issues. This sort of representative democracy that seems to be grinding to a halt in state capitols and the federal capitol is frustrating enough to us that we may take matters into our own hands.”

See more coverage of the results of this weekend’s hackathon on Sunday, where teams are competing for a $10,000 prize for the most innovative solution.

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