Programmers answer O'Malley's challenge to create bay-friendly apps

A few months ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley grew frustrated with state government's lack of creativity on the environment. He challenged his staff to look for new ideas to help the Chesapeake Bay.

In response, 80 bright minds from around the state — from precocious high-schoolers to CEOs of technology companies — hunkered down over the weekend at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater for a Chesapeake-oriented marathon programming competition, coordinated by the University of Maryland's Future of Information Alliance.

"The governor took a few of us to task and wanted more new ideas," said Mike Powell, Maryland's chief innovation officer. "He was thirsting for new ideas for our environmental challenges. ... There are thousands of people out there in Maryland who are passionate about issues and have a lot of great skills."

Thus, the state's first DataBay Reclaim the Bay Innovation Challenge began. Participants who had never met teamed up Friday evening and began to work. They barely slept. On Sunday, with bags under their eyes and caffeine fueling their brains, the teams pitched their ideas — which ranged from a SimCity-style game that would help young people understand how to prevent pollution to an app that pits users against each other to see who can make the most green improvements — to a panel of judges.

Four teams of finalists — each of which received $1,000 — were selected. The winning programs were: EcoSleuth, an app that allows users to track algae blooms through crowd-sourced reporting; ChesaPeaks, a website that monitors water quality in the state's rivers; BayBucks, an app that rewards environmentally friendly behavior with coupons to local businesses; and MyBay, a program that surveys users on their environmental habits and offers ways to improve them.

Alex Estes, 22, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland who was on the MyBay team, said he hopes people who use his team's program get a simple message.

"Don't overfertilize your lawn," Estes said. "All of that goes into the bay."

Levent Gurses, 40, who runs a marketing company called 64clicks, was excited that his team's BayBucks app was chosen as a finalist. Using the app, people could get bonus points for actions such as riding their bikes to work or planting trees. Points could be used for free services from local businesses.

"It's a system that encourages people to take everyday actions that would lead to a healthier bay," he said.

Kristen Houser, 19, a University of Maryland student, said she hopes her team's ChesaPeaks site keeps the health of Maryland's waterways on people's minds.

"It allows the users to see where it's OK to swim and OK to fish," she said.

Brian Baughman, 36, a particle astrophysicist, helped build EcoSleuth, which he could see state agencies using to quickly identify problems with the state's fish populations.

"This creation all began at 8 p.m. on Friday," Baughman said Sunday afternoon. "It was a really exciting experience to be thrown in with a bunch of really intelligent people to try to solve a problem."

For the state, Powell said he was impressed with the products. The four final teams will now compete for a grand prize of $4,000. They have until Aug. 27 to improve their programs before they make final presentations at the State House in Annapolis.

"It was a tremendous amount of work that got done in a short period of time," Powell said.

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