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Aberdeen’s economy has benefited from the North Sea oil industry for decades. Now some of the technological expertise behind city’s energy businesses is being put to work to develop new apps and tools to help its citizens.

CodeTheCity founder Steven Milne had been running training hackathons for some years, but began to feel like his efforts could be being put to better use.

“We were leaving the weekends feeling like we had nothing to show for it,” he explains.

“There’s not much of a start-up community here, but there are a lot of coders in the oil and gas industry.

“I felt that people were willing to put some time into something civic-minded.”

'We packed the place out'

After talking to a few people about his idea, he refocused his work into civic hacking. “We gave ourselves six weeks, found sponsors to pay for lunch, found space at the university – and we packed the place out.”

Milne says about 70 people spent some time at the first CodeTheCity in June 2014 – a third were from Aberdeen City Council, half were coders, and the remainder were “designers, bloggers, people with ‘creative’ in their job title”.

“The enthusiasm was up a level on before. We tried hard to make sure it wasn’t just white male coders in their 20s and 30s,” he adds.

Eight projects came out of that first Code the City event, including a tool to aggregate freedom of information requests, and Match the City, which started out as a “dating model for people who want to do active things – scraping civic data on sport and swimming”.

This idea was developed further the following October, with a second event aimed at developing something that can track down free lanes for swimming or walking groups for older people.

Milne – who works on CodeTheCity “on the side” from his day job in a marketing agency - is pleased with Aberdeen City Council’s keenness to release open data, and is grateful to the University of Aberdeen for hosting it. But he says the event is “resoundingly independent”.

“People don’t want to feel they’re working for the council for free,” he says.

Avoiding terms like 'hacking'

While he praises the Scottish capital’s EdinburghApps contest, Milne wants CodeTheCity to be “a wee bit different” and steers away from having prizes.

“We’re not trying to be competitive – deliberately avoiding terms like ‘hacking’ or ‘hackathon’,” he explains. “We’re trying to focus on collaborative design. So if you’re a start-up, be ready to donate your time and effort.”

CodeTheCity now has a manifesto which can be found on its site. His tip for anyone wanting to organise their own event?

“Reach out to local authorities – try to find a friendly face, voluntary sector organisations can help you do that,” he says.

“Universities or colleges can give you a free room as hotels and conference centres can get expensive very quickly. Then get on Twitter and Facebook.”