Unlike most Vermonters, Burlington residents have access to super-fast internet speeds. Burlington Telecom — the formerly financially beleaguered and now recovering city-owned company — built a fiber-to-the-home network throughout most of city that offers speeds as fast as one gigabit per second.
But what can you do with that kind of blazing fast internet connection? App developers, entrepreneurs and community development specialists are still trying to figure that out.
The question was at the heart of GigHacks, a three-day multi-city hackathon that took place last weekend in five communities across the country. The event was sponsored in part by Burlington Telecom, and also by US Ignite, a federally and privately funded initiative that connects the country's gigabit-speed networks and helps cities leverage them for economic gain. GigHack participants in Burlington were linked up via video conferencing tools with participants in Charlotte, N.C; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; and San Francisco, Calif. They all aimed to envision apps that would take advantage of these cities' gigabit-speed networks.
The ultimate goal: to turn these projects into ventures that create jobs and enhance economic development, perhaps resulting in the next Dealer.com or MyWebGrocer, two Burlington-area companies often touted as homegrown success stories. Dealer.com, whose 800-plus employees create online marketing solutions for auto dealers, hosted GigHacks at its Pine Street HQ.
About 30 hackers gathered there Friday evening for the event. At the GigHacks launch, Stephen Barraclough, BT's interim general manager, said the city's high-speed infrastructure is the most important contributor to economic development “since the Industrial Revolution.”
“I see the potential that could be here for this city, if it wanted to grab it,” he said.
US Ignite executive director William Wallace says he sees Burlington's potential, too. While the total number of participants in San Francisco was higher, in Burlington, the gig-hackers numbered one for every 1,400 or so residents. That was a far greater per-capita representation than in the other four cities, he said.
That’s why he picked the Queen City as his base from which to host the multi-city event, he said. It has great potential and yet has only just dipped its toe into the fast-flowing river of data power at its disposal.
“It’s an entrepreneurial haven,” Wallace said during the GigHacks launch Friday. “And when you add the fiber connection that Burlington Telecom brings, Burlington is going to be a leader.”
He hoped participants would think big. “What’s the next browser? What’s the next email platform?” he said. “The future of the new Internet is what we’re talking about here.”
The GigHackers came from varied walks of Burlington life. Soon-to-retire Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling pitched several ideas, including one for a police-training simulation that would show officers how to respond better in tense situations like those that led to recent deaths of black men in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.
Adam Provost, a technology integrator for the Burlington School District, envisioned a system to connect middle- and high-school students with particular interests — solar energy, perhaps, or speed sailing — with experts in universities or the business world who specialize in those areas. Other participants came from Seventh Generation, the healthy household products manufacturer based in Burlington; Stone Environmental Inc., an environmental consulting company based in Montpelier; and Laboratory B, Burlington’s “hacker space.”
By Sunday, after the participants had teamed up and spent a weekend GigHacking, designing and testing their ideas using the high-speed network, they presented their ideas in Dealer.com’s rooftop conference room. A large video screen showed their fellow GigHackers gathered in other cities in similar conference rooms.
One presenter from each site shared initiatives with the other cities. Wallace chose Joe Williams, project manager of the Sen. Patrick Leahy Center for Digital Investigation at Champlain College, to describe his idea for Cybersecurity as a Service. It’s a tool that would speed up the process that digital-forensic investigators use to analyze computer-based evidence — emails, Google searches, online photos — in crimes such as child pornography or kidnapping.
Most crime labs that process such data have months-long backlogs that slow investigations, Williams explained. With his proposed service, law enforcement responders could download the evidence from the scene onto a thumb drive and send it to Burlington for high-speed analysis.
A team of local GigHacks judges — Barraclough; Cairn Cross, co-founder of venture capital firm FreshTracks Capital; and Bradley Holt, a developer advocate for IBM Cloudant and co-captain of the Code for BTV software brigade — also chose Burlington winners in four categories. They gave the award for the biggest potential impact on society to Automated Search and Rescue, a system to address disasters such as the Nepal earthquake. Existing and inexpensive technology such as thermal imaging sensors and mapping software attached to a small robot, which sends the 3-D data back to a central computer, could help rescue workers find buried victims more quickly.
A group that proposed to deliver the “future of civic of engagement” won the Most Innovative award. Zev Averbach and other members of the Burlington Python User Group, proponents of the Python programming language, pledged to help time-pressed people keep track of the topics of local or national politics that interest them. With the group’s high-speed speech-searching app called Tappt, users would plug a keyword into their computer, tablet or smartphone and immediately jump to the spot that word is mentioned in the video of a city council meeting, Congressional testimony or speech on YouTube.
“Nobody has time to go to a city council meeting for three hours or watch C-SPAN all day,” Averbach explained in his presentation.
Averbach runs his own company offering Web-based transcription services. He’d like to turn this project and similar gig-related ideas into a new business venture, he said.
“Programming, for me, is like a serious hobby, and I’d like to make it more of my profession,” Averbach said, adding that the GigHacks event provided inspiration.
“The other pitches that I heard, several of them were really exciting.”