Hackers use computer skills to make life better in Kansas City

One after another, those interested in making the Kansas City area a better place pitched their happy causes and dire needs to a room full of computer hackers.

“Unfortunately, our citizens are dying a lot earlier than other people in the Kansas City area,” Caitlin McMurtry, 25, a program coordinator with the Wyandotte County Public Health Department, told some 50 hackers who gathered Saturday at Union Station for Hack Kansas City.

It was the first day of a two-day event as part of a National Day of Civic Hacking held simultaneously in about 100 other cities nationwide. The idea is to bring volunteer computer experts together to work toward community betterment.

“We’re having a really hard time getting healthy food to people who need it,” McMurtry said.

Perhaps the volunteer hackers, she asked, could work on an app or a site to give people a map of places that sell healthy food in Wyandotte County. Or show them maps of vacant lots or parcels of land that could be bought cheap to create community gardens.

How about an app, another person pitched, to alert people to the coming destruction of dilapidated or even historic buildings? Another wanted the computer experts to help him figure out a way to get more people involved in discussions surrounding the proposed new Kansas City airport.

Synthia Payne, 57, who moved from Denver to Kansas City hoping to take advantage of the nation’s first Google fiberhood, wanted some help to launch


, a site that allows Kansas City-area musicians to jam with one another online in real time.

“The biggest thing we want to do,” Eric Person, 38, said to the group, “is help people grow food for themselves and help them be self-sustaining.”

Person is co-owner of Urban Harvest KC, a hydroponic farm in the inner city where he uses water from a tank containing tilapia to grow fruits and vegetables. The group also holds workshops to teach others to do the same. Person needed help with a website that gets the word out beyond his Facebook page.

On Saturday it was far too early to predict how many of these ideas, along with others, will turn into useful apps or websites.

But by lunchtime, the hackers –– which is hardly a pejorative term any longer, instead describing people with prime computer skills — had formed groups according to interest and had started flipping open individual laptops.

“It’s just a good way to get involved,” said Bradley Dice, 19, a soon-to-be sophomore at William Jewell College with majors in chemistry, physics and math.

Such hack-a-thons and similar events have long histories, said Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Drive, an organization formed to help discover the best way for the community to take advantage of the area’s high-speed connections.

In other cities, from Boston to Seattle, volunteer hackers have helped create useful apps and sites that allow people to, for example, access bus lines, find snow-covered fire hydrants, help locate and rate damaged homes and neighborhoods after Hurricane Sandy and, in Oklahoma, after the tornado that struck Moore.

“I kind of wanted to give back to the community, and I came to meet people” said Kol Kheang, 31, a Cerner Corp. software engineer.

Richard Usher, Kansas City assistant city manager, meantime, was working on a goal to help small businesses by streamlining the processes needed to apply for licenses and permits.

“These events,” said Usher, sitting in front of an open laptop, “really help support the entire community.”