Search engine for city council agendas wins second Hack Omaha

Better Agendas, a search engine for Omaha City Council agendas, won the programming competition Hack Omaha Saturday on the campus of Metropolitan Community College. "Our team focused on making Omaha's city council agendas more usable," Better Agenda's Matt Steele said in an email interview Monday. "The agendas currently are stored in PDF format, which doesn't

Hack Omaha competitors Corey Jergensen (far left), Ben Hefner, Matt Steele and Steve Samson represent the Better Agendas team during the Saturday evening pitch.

Better Agendas, a search engine for Omaha City Council agendas, won the programming competition Hack Omaha Saturday on the campus of Metropolitan Community College.

“Our team focused on making Omaha’s city council agendas more usable,” Better Agenda’s Matt Steele said in an email interview Monday. “The agendas currently are stored in PDF format, which doesn’t lend itself to searching, aggregation or other enhancements.”

At Hack Omaha, teams were challenged to make “something useful, revealing and beautiful.” In its second iteration – the first Hack Omaha took place in April – the event changed its format from a weekend-long competition to a one-day hackathon. Also, instead of allowing competitors to use any set of government data available, event organizers narrowed the selection to three data sets: county spending, building permits and city council agendas

Following a morning round table on how the data could be used, the event’s 16 competitors split into three teams, each tackling a different data set.

  • County Spending: Marcus Ross, Travis Martensen, Hasani Hunter and Eric Edens worked with the Douglas County spending data to make it searchable by organization, fund, account and supplier. “In January of this year, they have one penny going towards office supplies,” Hunter said. “That sort of thing is actually in the data, and you can kind of mine that and pull all that stuff out, so that’s been kind of interesting.”
  • Building Permits: Ross Nelson, Annemarie Weiner, Nate Benes and Peter Freeze worked with the Omaha building permits data to allow people to search permits by a geogrpahical radius, stage or type. “It’s giving access to the information that people would need in order to attend a city council meeting to object to something, to support something … or just see if the neighbor who’s renovating their house has the permits,” Freeze said.
  • City Council Agendas: Robert Townley, Josh Branchaud, Corey Jergensen, Matt Steele, Nick Wertzberger, Steve Samson, Ben Hefner and Matt Heller worked with the PDF documents of Omaha City Council agendas to make them searchable. “You can’t tell if there’s anything in it that’s interesting or impacts your life,” Steele said. “So what happens is you only find out about the stuff after it’s gone through the committee, after it’s been approved and when someone has staked something in the ground saying, ‘We’re adding a liquor license.’ “

The Better Agendas’ website,, allows users to search the Omaha City Council agenda archives.

“Better Agendas was the clear winner for a few reasons,” Layerd Innovations co-founder John Grange, one of the event’s four judges, said in an email Monday. Grange said Better Agendas was the event’s most technically challenging project and that it has commercial opportunities and the ability to empower citizens. “(City Council agendas) matter to neighborhoods and individuals, not simple businesses or investors,” Grange said.

Steele indicated that his team is continuing work on the project, such as ensuring its database is kept up to date with future agendas.

Competition becomes collaboration

Hack Omaha organizers, judges and competitors gather in Metropolitan Community College’s Mule Barn on Saturday evening for the closing pitches.

The first Hack Omaha took place in April and was organized, sponsored and hosted by the Omaha World-Herald. This time around, Metropolitan Community College, Sen. Heath Mello and the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance teamed up with the World-Herald.

Changes to the event’s format, including dropping the prize money and eliminating the opening idea pitch session, brought out more collaboration among competitors.

“There’s no prize money; the focus is just try and take a few data sets that can be immediately relevant to lawmakers and the government employees and make it more useful,” Steele (right) said. “One of the things that we did this time was we had a round table session at the start just to say, ‘Here’s what the data looks like, what can you do with it?’ As opposed to, ‘Here’s a business idea that I want to pitch, come and join my team.’ So there was a lot more collaboration from the start.”


Note: Silicon Prairie News is a media sponsor of Hack Omaha.

Credits: Better Agendas presentation photo by Heath Mello via Twitter. Photo of Mule Barn and Matt Steele by Danny Schreiber.


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