I’m now only moderately jet-lagged from a week spent in the US in which I crammed in two hackathons and a conference. Here’s the scoop.
I was excited to visit Boston and super excited to be invited to the Knight Civic Media Conference hosted at MIT Media Lab. Boston is a fine city with lots of tech-related activity and since my colleague and Boston Globe Open News fellow Dan Schultz had recently graduated from the MIT Media Lab I had an in! Jet-lagged but happy I got my first glimpse of the famous lab when I and another fellow Open News fellow Laurian Gridinoc were invited in to watch Inception with a Rifftrax soundtrack playing over the top it. It sounded like a kinda chilled out media hack and after food, beers and caffeine tablets I found myself in what seemed to be a very cool building with more inventions and gadgets (let’s just call them toys) that you could shake a memory stick at. As I saw more, it soon dawned on me that this was the place dreams were made of and I started to wonder if there were any adults about. As I watched Inception unfold with added Rifftrax sarcasm I started to wonder why I didn’t know more about what was – for me at least — a type of media and technology Mecca.
The next day - a Saturday - we started hacking. The hackathon itself (sponsored by Mozilla) started in the afternoon, but as a warm up exercise and just because it was there, I attended the Hacks/Hackers meet-up immediately before it, in the same building. As you might have guessed from the title, this was an event for journalists and developers. We were lucky enough to have Miranda Mulligan facilitating the event which touched on interesting and useful subjects such as responsive design for online news sites. I guess when you intersect two disciplines you get straight to the point of what is actually useful.
So on to the hackathon on another floor, the now familiar introductions around a circle and rules of engagement, more coffee and away! I didn’t suggest any projects this time as I wanted to work on somebody else’s for a change. The theme was The Story and the Algorithm and there were plenty of cool projects to chose from. I gravitated towards the folk planning to do something with web based video and after a bit of brainstorming we pretty much had a plan and started hacking. We had something working by the end of the day and the next day we finished it off and added the a distinctive front page and lo surfbored.tv was born - it provides a way of surfing YouTube channels passively. Warning - if you tune in to the Andy Carvin channel you may encounter graphic content. It was fantastic to work with a crack unit of developers, designers and journalists which made up our team James Burn, Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler, Corey Ford and Brian Boyer.
The hackathon ran from 3pm until 4pm the next day (thankfully sleep and socialising were encouraged in-between) after which we were given a whistle-stop tour of the Media Lab by Dan Schultz who you got the impression was very sad to leave the place. But leave he must for now, as he made the error of graduating. Actually I think he has a year’s leeway so watch out for him at future Rifftrax events. After the tour in which I probably lost a boat-load of Twitter followers by compulsively photographing and tweeting EVERY SINGLE LAB we were ushered up to the totally different atmosphere of the conference centre on the top floor and the start of the conference proper. More canape’ than cyberpunk we were provided with refreshments, food, networking opportunities and a great view of the city. All very plush.
The conference took place over the next two days and it was inspiring to once again witness the fusion of journalism and technology. Best of all was the opportunity to liaise with the other four Open News fellows and Dan Sinker our inimitable leader (it’s not often we’re all in the same place). There were many good talks and discussions, I especially appreciated seeing people I knew or had followed from afar get up on stage and do their thing. A couple of the highlights that stood out for me was Erin Kissane’s short but beautifully told story on her relationship with books and how digital books and related services are replacing them. Being a great lover of the papery thing, I very much identified. Long and short - it’s hard to let go but there are just too many advantages to using electronic versions. I also loved Ben Moskowitz talk on Drones and Journalism - a fascinating subject, somehow I have retained the love of remote control vehicles from my youth.
And so on to Washington DC and the second leg of the tour. Another city, another hackathon - this one was a Mozilla-ITVS-LivingDocs initiative dubbed Silverhacks by organisers Brett Gaylor and John Archer. I travelled down with Zeit Online fellow Cole Gillespie. It was all part of the Silver Docs Indie Documentary Festival where Cole and I got to work with two local filmmakers - Brandon and Lance Kramer who had spent two years filming material for a documentary exploring “the lives of people employed by the modern-day DC Green Corps, an urban forestry job training program […]” They had some great material and our job as developers over the next couple of days was to help make an interactive piece with a selection of it. The result was a Popcorn.js / Google Map API combo and I think we were all fairly happy with the process and the result (the audio part after the initial video is where all the fun starts).
Overall the trip was extremely worthwhile - amazing people were met and caught up with and some valuable lessons were learned. Hackathons or just hack-days, to me, are a great way to work with other people and concentrate on getting the minimum viable product out in a very short space of time - invaluable practice in fact for working in a newsroom and I feel that although I’m now behind with all my other work I am much better off for the experience. The best part is that both of the things that we ended up making could be used in a news organisation and I hope to incorporate these ‘hacks’ in the near future.