Hacking Your Hometown

I’ve been inspired by Chicago native Christopher Groskopf (@onyxfish) and his Hack Tyler initiative. Christopher made the decision to follow his son from Chicago to Texas to continue to be a part of his life after a recent divorce. To help cope with the drastic change in locale and lifestyle, Christopher is keeping himself busy by “hacking” (in the MIT hacker culture sense — not the illegal cracking sense) his soon-to-be new town, Tyler, Texas.

It’s inspiring to see such dedication to one’s offspring. I would say few people have the fortitude to selflessly give up so much to be with their child. What interests me, though, is the Hack Tyler project. Christopher is moving from a relatively technologically advanced, online city to a smaller Texas town whose online presence is, by comparison, almost nonexistent. It’s an untapped resource waiting to be harvested, unlocked, and shared (and perhaps a potential goldmine).

It bears a striking resemblance to my area: Washington County, VA. The county seat, the town of Abingdon, has fewer than 10,000 residents. The entire county’s population, according to 2010 census data, is 54,876 — about half the population of Tyler, Texas. It’s a very small place in comparison to Tyler. It’s barely a spec on the map in comparison to Chicago’s 2.7 million residents (3rd largest city in the US). It’s uncharted territory, technologically speaking, and for me, I think it’s an opportunity to do something great for my community, and hopefully learn something in the process.

I’ve wanted to “hack” the local scene for quite some time. I’ve had many ideas brewing in the back of mind, just waiting for a good excuse to come out. Thanks to Hack Tyler, and its coincidence with my ongoing and growing initiative to increase my programming skill and experience, I think now is the time to set things into motion — to “hack” my hometown (or perhaps the whole county or the entire region since it seems to function as one large community, rather than a spattering of individual farming and coal mining towns).

Following in Christopher’s footsteps, I’m going to begin by cataloging all the local sources of data I can find. Most of this data, sadly, is in poorly digestible formats, so I’m going to have to learn some new techniques to utilize it. Web scraping may be the most pertinent, along with tools for converting PDFs to text and other data harvesting techniques. In addition, I hope to apply new programming skills I’m working to acquire as well. Namely Python and probably some jQuery too.

I’m pretty excited about it. I think it’s a great opportunity to improve myself and improve my community. I’m very fortunate to live where I do. I really love it here, in the Appalachian Highlands, and I hope that I can help to move this area towards a more open and online-present community.

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