The Next Century’s Yard of Bricks

When the checkered flag flies at this weekend’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, you’ll likely see the winner climb out of his or her car and kneel down next to a 36-inch strip of bricks at the track’s start/finish line. The celebratory ‘kissing of the bricks’ is an homage to the race’s rich past.

For Indy’s community of innovators, its entrepreneurial technologists, and civic-minded advocates, it should also serve as inspiration.

When the Indy Chamber and TechPoint host the third annual Indy Civic Hack Day next weekend, Indy’s civic hackers would be well-served to take a few lessons from the Speedway. For starters, the fitting theme for this year’s Civic Hack is transportation, with data and challenges being provided by IndyGo and Pacers Bike Share.

But there’s an even deeper connection between Indy Civic Hack Day, the city’s marquee event celebrating civic innovation, and that famed Yard of Bricks. I’ll explain…

Think back to where the country was when Indy businessman Carl Fisher first dreamt up the Speedway in 1905. Automobiles were a brand new technology still out of the price range of most Americans. Roads were mostly dirt. Highways wouldn’t exist for another 50 years and most gasoline was sold in large drums by your neighborhood pharmacy or grocery store.

The thought of a race track allowing cars to travel 70 miles an hour for 500 miles in a single day would have seemed like futuristic fantasy. At a time when most travel involved a horse, people could not possibly have understood how an automobile race would drive innovation, revolutionize vehicle safety, and create economic opportunity for the state of Indiana over the next century.

Of course, all that innovation wouldn’t come easy. You could say the Speedway had a bit of a ‘rocky’ start. The first few races were run on a track comprised of dirt and gravel. Not surprisingly, those early drivers had to navigate dangerous potholes, ruts, and oh yeah – gravel flying at their faces! Safety concerns would push Fisher to pave the Speedway with bricks in 1909. Eventually segments of the track were covered in asphalt, and in 1961, the remaining sections were paved, leaving the Yard of Bricks as the only remnant of the track’s bumpy beginnings.

But those first few challenging years proved to be fertile ground for the experimentation that would eventually spawn transformative technology. The rearview mirror, the seatbelt, front-wheel drive, and the use of alternative fuels would all be birthed by innovators at Indy’s Speedway.

Fortunately, Fisher wasn’t looking at Indy as it was. He was looking at what Indy could be for the next hundred years. Fisher’s vision wasn’t just to test car engines. He wanted to create an economic engine that would make Indianapolis the center of automobile manufacturing in the world. To get there, he needed an event with enough pageantry to draw a big crowd, a competition that would push the boundaries of technology, and the physical infrastructure that would make it all possible.

Like Fisher’s vision to create a center for automotive manufacturing by building a race track, we see Indy Civic Hack Day as a catalyst to create an economic engine in Indiana fueled by civic data and technology.

2014 Indy Civic Hack Day at the Speak Easy.
2014 Indy Civic Hack Day at the Speak Easy.

How? Over the past two years, Indy Civic Hack Day has provided the pageantry to draw big crowds of the area’s best developer, data, and design talent. The competitive nature of the event provides attendees with the opportunity to push the boundaries of some of the latest technologies. And often times the infrastructure, the data itself, provided to fuel that innovation, pushes the limits of the participating state and local government agencies.

These early Civic Hacks have certainly seen their fair share of bumps in the road. Data has often been spotty, extremely limited in scope and duration, or insufficient to adequately address the challenges at hand. After the hack, it has been challenging to reconvene the team needed to carry solutions through to implementation. And if winning teams do stick together, local government agencies are often ill-equipped to collaborate with teams outside of the traditional public sector procurement process.

Like the country’s infrastructure system a hundred years ago, many of the roads and highways of the new data-driven economy are more dirt and rock than smooth asphalt. The vast majority of public data provided by municipalities or the State of Indiana are only available through clunky databases and outdated PDFs. Most city and state agencies are still bound by procurement and data sharing red tape held over from a bygone era.

2015 Indy Civic Hack Day at Eleven Fifty.
2015 Indy Civic Hack Day at Eleven Fifty.

But with the internet of things and other smart city technologies approaching on the horizon, it’s not hard to start imagining how an explosion in open public data could impact our lives in the coming decades. The potential opportunities for Indiana businesses to consume that data, build innovative solutions, or begin new businesses is immense…

IF we continue driving forward.

In the two short years since the first Hack Day, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of civic hacks, with topics covering everything from public safety to legislative transparency to combating the state’s drug abuse problem.

We’ve seen the creation of the Open Indy Brigade, an organization dedicated to being the central hub where technologists and public sector innovators can come together to address large social issues. And earlier this month, the City of Indianapolis launched Open Indy, the city’s first public facing open data portal and permanent home for the type of information needed to fuel innovation.

There’s still a long way to go to make Indy that economic center of the data-driven economy. There are plenty of bumps to smooth out on the road to get us there. Next week’s Indy Civic Hack Day is an opportunity to log another mile on that journey.

So when we see the winner cross the Yard of Bricks this weekend, let’s celebrate how far the track and the state of Indiana have come in the past century. And let’s start to imagine where civic innovation can lead us in the next.


Matt Kirby
Open Indy Brigade Co-Founder