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Fighting fire in Louisville, the hackathon way

When the city identified a problem with fires in vacant properties, it asked the local tech community for help.

An empty building is a fire hazard. The city of Louisville has turned to tech to do something about that.

This month, Kentucky's largest city will begin a pilot program to see if a handful of devices can help cut back on the risk of blazes that start where no one's looking.

Those devices aren't off-the-shelf, though. They came about through a novel interaction between the city and its tech-savvy citizens. It's part of a broader innovation initiative launched in 2011 by the mayor's office.

"It's not easy to tap into some of those skills that a Google or somebody else can just pull from," said Edward Blayney, innovation project manager at Louisville's Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation.

Louisville wasn't about to let that stand in its way. In November 2015, it held a hackathon.

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Hackathon winners work on a device that listens for smoke alarms and alerts emergency responders.

Erin Carson/CNET

In doing so, the city was drawing on the spirit of the maker movement. Makers are the do-it-yourself crowd, people who come together to tinker and create on a smaller scale and outside the traditional confines of manufacturing. It was also borrowing from a tradition among tech companies -- like Google, but also Facebook, Meetup and even Tinder -- that look for grassroots-style innovation from across their staffs.

Louisville held its week-long hackathon at a local makerspace called LVL 1 to see if anyone could come up with a workable idea. About 27 people showed up and produced a handful of projects.

The judging panel comprised members of the fire department, the emergency dispatch team and the fire protection industry, and it settled on a project that's now called Casper, for "completely autonomous solar-powered event responder."

Casper's 3D printed case contains a circuit board, battery, antenna and a microphone circuit. Essentially, Casper is a device that can listen, even from several rooms away, for the specific frequency a smoke alarm emits when it goes off and then can alert emergency responders. The alert will then go to a setup that looks something like Google Maps on a screen located in the city's emergency response center.

Each of the nine city-owned properties in the pilot program will get one smoke alarm and one Casper device.

If Casper's successful, that should help turn around some disturbing stats Louisville discovered about vacant properties and fire. Looking at data from an earlier project, the city determined that at least 44 percent of fires in district one, Louisville's economically challenged west end, that involved two or more buildings also involved a vacant property. That means a fire can start and then spread before anyone realizes what's happening and calls 911. This was not just a matter of vacant properties burning down. If the fires spread, other properties -- and people, too -- could be in danger.

Nate Armentrout holds the Casper device.

Erin Carson/CNET

Increasingly, cities are turning to tech-savvy citizens to solve problems, often using events like hackathons. Hackathons are typically gatherings centered on solving a specific problem within a window of time, like a weekend. Projects are judged, and depending on the circumstances, prizes may be awarded.

In May, San Diego held a hackathon to connect local tech talent with its Climate Action Plan. Houston holds an annual hackathon in partnership with a civic technology advocacy group called Sketch City.

At the same time, cities are also using data to identify and fix problems. Boston, for example, has a principal data scientist named Curt Savoie. In one instance a few years ago, Savoie looked at data and found that if a streetlight goes out, it takes about 10 days before property crime in the area goes up, which is roughly the time frame the city has to fix the light.

More broadly, the White House has even been pushing for greater collaboration between government agencies, all the way down to the local level, and those in the tech community. It was the big message of President Barack Obama's South by Southwest keynote this year.

For the guys on the winning hackathon team in Louisville, learning that there was a real problem with fires in vacant properties was enough motivation to donate their time and skills.

"I'm concerned for the safety of these people and I didn't know it was an issue until the hackathon happened," said Nate Armentrout, one of the team members.

Team members had their work cut out for them. One of the initial challenges to solve was that these vacant properties have no power. The devices also had to be relatively inexpensive to make and not create a burden for the city -- so changing batteries every so often wasn't an option. That's why Casper is solar-powered. The team has created hardware and software for Casper itself.

Armentrout, an entrepreneur and engineer, estimated that he and teammates David Jokinen, who works at a computer security company, and James Gissendaner, a graduate student, have put in a minimum of 10 hours a week on the project since winning the hackathon.

If the pilot program is successful, Louisville will look at the feasibility of expanding the project.

Success could also mean future similar collaborations in the community.

"What this hackathon has really showed is that if we can help [citizens] understand the problem, they can help us bring a solution that's pretty viable," Blayney said.