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‘Hackathon’ at UMass to tackle community’s online challenges

Valley computer programmers, designers, bloggers and entrepreneurs will get together this weekend at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to participate in the area’s first Hack for Western Massachusetts, a two-day program that seeks to create online data processing tools to benefit local nonprofits, activists and researchers.

Inspired by the White House hackathon in February, local organizations were invited to submit requests for help with data-based challenges to hackforwesternmass.org. The most feasible were selected to be worked on by nearly 100 volunteers.

Becky Sweger, director of data and technology for the National Priorities Project in Northampton, one of the program’s sponsors, said the event is receiving good support from the community.

“Once people understand what it is — to be frank, the word ‘hack’ does not always have a positive connotation — once people see it’s actually a group of community volunteers, they react positively because this is very much in line with the ethos of western Massachusetts: rolling up our sleeves and getting things done and volunteering to give back to the community,” she said.

Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action in Greenfield, said her agency will be pitching a safety-net service-needs project to the volunteer hackers on Saturday.

“We’re looking to figure out how we can use Census data to find out where low-income people are and map the needs of the community,” said Higgins, whose organization offers child care, job training and other services to residents of Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“I think it’s interesting to pull a bunch of thinkers together and see what gets created,” she said.

Daniel Finn, co-founder and vice president of the board of Pioneer Valley Local First of Northampton, said his group heard about the hackers event from its web designer.

Local First, a 12-year-old volunteer organization, has a mission to encourage citizens to shop and bank locally. Finn said he hopes the hackers will help create an interactive map for the group’s website that “will let people know that local banks can be found across western Massachusetts and make it easier to locate them.”

Finn said he is also looking for advice on quick ways to update data on local banking available on Local First’s website.

Although Hack for Western Massachusetts has accepted all the projects it can take on, volunteers are still being recruited. Sweger said the event needs more “documenters,” people who can record the program with video, audio, writing and photos. Anyone interested in joining the hack or more information about the event should visit the program’s website.

Other projects hackers will take on this weekend include creating tools that will:

∎ Unlock prison phone data to make it more accessible for criminal justice advocates, policymakers and journalists, proposed by the Prison Policy Initiative in Easthampton.

∎ Audit and visualize federal money in a way that makes it clear how tax dollars are spent, proposed by National Priorities Project.

∎ Develop a seed swap database to share information about locally available seeds, proposed by Hilltown Seed Saving Network in Cummington.

∎ Make an online program that inspires a love of education, resulting in a better life for teenage mothers, proposed by The Care Center of Holyoke.

Gazette reporter Barbara Solow contributed to this story.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.

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