University of Vermont

Ideas Ignite When Food System Actors and Burlington Techies Gather at UVM

How can high-tech help Vermont’s food system thrive? At NOFA-VT’s winter conference, UVM brought both sides together to find out. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Just the idea of a “hackathon” suggests a certain kind of energy -- creativity and crazy skill mixed with the thrill of a challenge. That maker mentality came together over the weekend to coincide with the winter conference of Vermont’s Northeast Organic Food Association (NOFA-VT), a large gathering of stakeholders from farmers to policy makers, researchers and consumers, held at UVM.

In combination with the conference, the Office of the UVM Vice President for Research co-sponsored a food systems hackathon, inviting Code BTV, a brigade of Code for America, which recruits civic-minded technology experts to problem solve in their own communities. The groups, combining their areas of expertise, brainstormed about problems that just might be answered by an app built to help a farmer collect data from the field or a retailer seeking a source for golden beets.

“From a 30,000-foot perspective,” said Tad Cooke ’14, who helped facilitate and co-sponsored part of the event along with his business partner and fellow UVM senior Erick Crockenberg, “this should be a tangible example of what happens when we plan for serendipity -- intentional social capital, if you will.”

Makers with markers 

As the hackathon opened, with a mix of NOFA-VT attendees and code writers gathered at large round tables in the Davis Center Livak Ballroom, computers and iPhones were being charged around the periphery of the room but the communication was old school.

In the first step participants, broken into teams, quickly jotted ideas onto post-it notes which they fixed onto large cardboard charts, starting with roughly drawn columns indicating if an issue pertained to growers, distributors, value-added producers, retailers or consumers.

“It was great working with people from different backgrounds,” said Serena Parnau, UVM food systems graduate program coordinator. “We just filtered our ideas down to the one that was the most economical while impacting the most people.”

As they moved through a series of exercises there was a vibrant hum of conversation as participants first prioritized ideas based on overall importance to Vermont’s food system, moving the yellow notes along a horizontal axis, then moving them up or down based on perceived difficulty, landing the ideas in quadrants, the upper left considered luxurious, the bottom right -- the sweet spot -- considered high value. With 20 minutes, teams were then tasked with picking an idea and developing the concept, including features and benefits, timeline and potential liabilities, the more diagrams and color on their presentation poster the better. Then a representative from each team made a pitch to the room.

A few themes emerged around needs for environmental data collection as well as facilitating distribution. One “farm finder” app idea would showcase the daily availability at a given farmstand, with a grower simply uploading photos from a smartphone. Another group suggested a virtual toolshed that would allow farmers to share equipment within their communities. Each participant, armed with high-tech dark and light orange stickers, voted on overall best concepts as well as strong features within ideas.

Tech time

Despite some lingering over lunch -- it was a NOFA conference and the food was local, organic and plentiful -- serious hackers, computers in hand, set up their spots and went to work. One group of Web developers from Vermont Design Works had come to the event on a mission to build an API (Application Programming Interface) that will make Vermont Food Systems Atlas data available to other websites, with some 5,000 resources within the state, one member told the group, inviting anyone interested to come talk to him.

But the most important outcomes to emerge from the hackathon were the connections and conversations, the volume of viable ideas and clear interest in keeping the exchange going -- along with the evidence that collaboration is key. “You tricked me into thinking strategically,” Bradley Holt, Code BVT brigade captain, reports hearing from one NOFA-VT participant. “He came to the workshop with a single idea he wanted to see built, but the process helped him think more critically.”