Hackathon Yackathon reflections

Yackathon-webThe hackathon is an interesting phenomenon in the way that people have organized around technology development and social issues. Closely related to the concept of open data, the sort of collaboration that goes on at a hackathon is often structured around themes in the public interest, whether that’s open government, disaster relief, or community-minded apps and technology solutions. Our Hackathon Yackathon was designed to invite hackathon organizers, participants and those interested in such events to look at them with a critical eye, asking the sort of meta-questions that would impede hacakthon’s goals if raised during such events.

We provided a means for people to submit topics and came up with a rough agenda beforehand, but the more intimate nature of this hackathon (focused around conceptual work and ideation) with a smaller crowd meant conversation flowed more organically through the entire group – instead of splitting into our breakout sessions as planned, we started with smaller groups that came together for our first “panel,” which flowed into the next and focused on two main themes: Hackathon methodologies, tools and outcomes, and the tension between civic hacking and data activism. We were fortunate to have a diverse set of perspectives and motivations at the event – VJ Um Amel and Willow Brugh joined us via GoogleHangout and we had a fairly casual conversation with well-thought out input from all the participants.

For me, a key outcome was the sense of the hackathon as a method that has many different iterations and is not beholden to a particular ethos or inherent quality – it focuses on not merely volunteerism, but invested participation, which can be cooped by commercial interests as “cheap labor.” This was something we could all agree on, however, the ideological divide between the hackathon as a model of cooperation versus competition was something that also reflected schisms between hackathons organized to contribute to municipal and governmental goals, versus those which are more activist in spirit and intent.

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Another interesting point which I wish we could have devoted more time to is the divide between big data and observable community results. Hackathons draw from a spectrum of skill sets by encouraging participation from people who know how to do more than just code. However, they are not always inclusive – for the activist and even the civic mode, it can be difficult to involve people who can’t just build something on a computer in a day or two. In addition, there’s a need to address the agenda and viability of data (is it alive or dead, and who creates it for what purpose?). One possible answer we thought of was to incorporate some of the methods from citizen science, and to organize hacakthons in a series, where data collection methods are planed and tools are created, then people are trained and can go out to build the dataset themselves, and return to work on it at future events. This way, people of varying skill levels have greater agency, participation and investment in the project as it develops.

This is also important, because as VJ said, “People in the West fetishize data to the detriment of its content” – it may be convenient for us to build tools that are practical and feasible, but do they really solve any questions we need answers to? Are we building things that people need, or just making a wasted effort for the sake of the exercise?

IMG_0015_2On a final note, there needs to be a set of reusable tools that can be adapted from one hackathon to the next. There may not be a universal set of “best practices” for hacakthons across the board, but there are some outputs (experience) that can be applied, and documenting them is difficult. The “case study” and working groups approach OccupyData has taken is useful, but hackathons in general suffer from a lack of institutional memory and high frequency that dilutes their effectiveness. I’d argue that the most important output of a hackathon is the community that develops as people experiment with each other from one event to the next, but if a hackathon is a platform for building a concrete product rather than concepts, there needs to be more structure to their organization. Unfortunately, this diminishes the agency and representation of participants… the hackathon is a tool itself, a way of organizing, that is contextual and suited towards unique purposes depending on the organizers and the participants. The variety of options between those purposes and motivations reveal the tensions that exist when we try to think of the hackathon as having a singular format and structure, and organizers must try to align the way the event is held with their motivational values.

Critical Themes In Media Studies 2013

I had my first conference presentation today, at The New School’s Critical Themes In Media Studies annual grad student conference. There was a lot of great speakers and topics in the program, and from what I understand there should be some video of them up online at some point.

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I got to hear another panel and a half speak before I had to get ready for the panel I was presenting in – probably my favorite thing I heard during the conference was Mateusz Halawa’s work on “Lifelogging: A Technology of the Self.” Halawa identified the sort of archival work that we do with social media, creating assemblages of meaning out of an otherwise meaningless datastream, as a “technology of the self” as described by Foucault. I’m actually not familiar with this term or idea, so I’m eager to look into it myself.

My presentation was a recap of the pilot work I did with Danny Kim on hackathons and collective identity, but I was able to incorporate some of the ideas that I’ve been drawing from as I’ve expanded it into thesis work. Namely, more Castells, some Galloway, and especially Christopher Kelty’s ideas on recursive publics, which I can’t believe I didn’t know about. My second reader brought it up to me in a review meeting a few weeks ago (I was meaning to post about that, but I’ve been crazy busy as I’ve been revising the proposal).

It was interesting to see the way other presenters on the panel viewed publics – our respondent, Edward Byfield, felt this was the underlying theme that connected our works. The other panelists’s projects were “Digital Uncanniness: Art from Google Street View,”“Flash Mobs: Seizing Space “In A Flash” with Digital Technology,” and “The socio-politics of virtual private networks” which mainly focused on the Iranian intranet and use of VPN’s to overcome censorship. I argued that the public is becoming more public by conceptualizing it as “nested publics” of counterpublics (Nancy Fraser) and private publics (Papacharissi) which overlap and bump up against each other.

On that note, I’ll be talking about public/private identity and these virtual communities at Media in Transition 8 in May! Two conferences in a month… at least my thesis proposal is virtually done.

OccupyData and TTW13

Evernote Snapshot 20130302 142839Last weekend I was at OccupyData and Theorizing the Web, as I mentioned earlier. Nathan Jurgenson and and PJ Reys put on an impressive conference for work about technology and theory (two things which are apparently difficult to talk about at the same time at conferences, apparently). At the same time, the organizers at OccupyData have done a good job coordinating people working on all sorts of different projects – there was a mixture of pitches and continuing work, and there was a little more structure to begin with this time. Two of the more interesting projects that were Data Anywhere [Day 2 post] and the NoFareHikes map that Ingrid Burrington showed us – I especially liked the later because as Christo said, “there’s a media action agenda inherent in project” which makes it great. I’ve been thinking about how a lot of hackathons propose a sort of data solutionism, or a belief that the technology solution is the solution to whatever the issue is. Continue reading

Busy Weekend

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Yesterday and today I spent my time at OccupyData’s hackathon at the CUNY graduate center, where Theorizing the Web 2013 just so happened to be taking place. Each deserves their own blog post, and I’ll get to it tomorrow I suppose. I just realized that I hadn’t really put much on the research I’ve been doing up on the blog – I’ve included the preliminary paper I did along in a new page under the Papers & Projects tab.

Also, since I haven’t really been updating the blog with my notes on the work (I have over 60 separate notes with thousands of words and lots of clippings in each), I thought I’d provide a taste of some of the things worth checking out that I’ve come across researching hackathons so far.

More tomorrow!

Hackathon Research Updates

highres_208510922Yesterday I went to the Code Across NYC hackathon, organized by CodeForAmerica and OpenNYForum. They had a pretty nice event space at the NYU-Poly Varick Street Incubator, and I think it was well put together with civic hackers and open government advocates in mind.  I was there as part of my participant observation for my thesis work on Hackathons, and like before, I had some qualms about how much I’d be able to participate, given the very skill-based nature of the event.

Unlike some of the other events I’ve been to, there were no prizes, and organizers were very clear that you get out what you put into this event. There weren’t any really evidently corporate sponsors – Joel Natividad of Ontonida was there (we had a really good conversation in the breakout group) and talked about OpediaCities as a “Smarter City” platform, for the sort of data-wrangling and resource management that others could build off of. There was also a presentation about Socrata, some talk about NYC Department of Education’s interest in this work, and Big Apps.

Our breakout sessions were really neat – there was a large crowd of beginners, about 17 people, a smaller group of people who knew what they were doing and were there to get something done, and a non-technical group I joined for a policy discussion. Noel Hidalgo (who led the intro and our policy group) explained how OpenNYForum is writing a white paper that will go to good government transparency advocates, and then be fleshed out to a broader paper on open open government and open data advocacy. Continue reading

Exploring Collaboration Through Videography

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I’m really happy that I recently accepted an offer from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven to do videography work for them on Reintegrate: Enhancing Collaborations in the Arts & Sciences. Reintegrate is a pretty neat project, about not only looking at the arts community in New Haven, but seeing how the scientific and academic community can work with them on projects and share the strengths of two different styles of thinking. In its own words, the project

celebrates and showcases the region’s creativity in both the arts and sciences by facilitating collaboration between artists and scientists, showcasing innovative arts and science projects, and inviting the public to share the arts/science connection through events and resources.

Essentially, there are several teams of artists and scientists working together on projects related to geography and literature, stem-cell research and dance, citizen science and sculpture, and so on. This is really exciting to me because of my experience working with civic and tactical media through the Remember Me project. Coincidentally, I’m TAing a course in Interventionist Aesthetics this semester, in which we

examine the ways in which art, design, and technology can be leveraged to develop creative and tactical responses to critical political issues in the public sphere. We study the role of artistic interventions, social media, and tactical tools to support civic agency and participatory action, as well as transform changing political conditions in critical ways. We will investigate how aesthetic principles such as the gaze, spectacle and détournement help to contextualize interventionist practices and inform the creation of new work.

To me, videography is a process of documentation, presented through stylistic choices and a structure that mimics a popular visual aesthetic. People typically understand the language of interview, editing, and video sequences as a compact mode of storytelling. But the subject of Reintegrate is interesting because it deals with collaboration in a way very similar to my thesis work on hackathons. People are coming together from disparate backgrounds sharing similar goals, exercising their skills in a temporary collective effort to make something for others.

I’m also excited because it finally justified me getting a proper camera and gear to do the shoot right. Those tools will definitely come in handy if I decide to incorporate multimedia elements into my thesis work, or on some other project.

Researching Hackathons

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a sketch of one of the hackathons where we did participant observation

Well, this past semester was incredibly busy. Although I haven’t been working as much with Youth Rights Media, I did start a research project that I will be pursuing as a master’s thesis this coming year. For awhile now, I’ve been interested in the idea of digital activism and “hacktivism” as it’s been termed. There’s a lot of confused discussion over the use of the term “hack” and how it applies to hackers, hacktivism, and hackathons. Public perceptions and use of the term hacking and hackers leads to some very odd policy decisions, as Molly Sauter points out in this MIT CMS lecture. But digital activism/hacktivism is a much larger barrel of monkeys. When I started working on this subject, I was highly influenced by Joss Hands book, @ is for Activism. I also have been following the discussions and trends around slacktivism/”clicktivism” as Earl and Kimport describe in “Digitally Enabled Social Change” and their “theory 2.0” ideas about how we conceptualize collective identity when dealing with disparate political actors in a digital environment.

These inspirations combined with the last year’s worth of news and events from Occupy and Anonymous and other forms of digital activism, led me to some new questions and ideas. First, is digital activism/hacktivism a collectivizing endeavor? Or is it purely an individualist activity where people wind up working together? As many know, there are difficulties of researching actions and subjects in digital localities. For the past twenty years people have been developing a methodology of netnography, and now we have a trend of combining quantitative analysis with a previously anthropological approach through the use of data mining and fancy coding tools. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do though.

At the New School, there was no shortage of talk about Occupy – there were even hackathons organized for projects geared towards Occupy-related issues. At the urging of my advisor, I started looking at hackathons as field sites where this sort of digital activism happened in a physical space as well, as a sort of hybrid environment where we could do more traditional participant observation into not just the physical space, but also the “information space” – all the cloud and internet based environments where data was being shared, stored, and drawn from to make these projects happen.

I’m really happy to say it was a great experience. I worked with a fellow grad student (Danny Kim) as a research partner and together we did participant observation at three hackathons  – OccupyResearch at CUNY, EcoHack, and Hack N’Jill, all of which had some sort of identifiable pro-social or political agenda or theme. It was great as a pilot study, and I’m eager to get more into the work this spring. Some of the things we discovered felt like new ideas – unless we’re reinventing the wheel, our findings so far helpful to understanding hackathons and their potential for social or political activism.

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Participants working at one of the hackathons

The best TL;DR summary I can give is probably this: it seemed as though hackathons are about solving technology problems, rather than social problems. The time/skill-driven agenda really creates a disconnect between any policy issues that the projects are meant to address and focuses participants on rolling them out in a working and deployable format without a lot of concern towards longevity or application. This isn’t always the case, but what we really saw was an environment where people came to casually demonstrate and practice skills with others, to collaborate and learn, and generally have fun doing something they loved doing. I think this is all very different from the action-driven agenda of activism, although the two are not incompatible.

This sort of work will hopefully lead to our bigger questions, about how individual identity informs a group and helps to create a collective identity, and how a collective identity helps to inform the individual on their role within the group, particularly when dealing with horizontal networks of politically motivated individuals facilitated by technology. I believe this is a recursive sort of relationship, and I’d use the drosde effect as an illustration.

I’ve also submitted our abstract for Critical Themes In Media Studies and Theorizing The Web 2013. I’d love to present on this work or find some new opportunities for study. This semester I’ll be making a stronger effort to blog more frequently about updates to this project.