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Nov. 12, 2010, 10 a.m.

Hacking data all night long: A NYC iteration of the hackathon model

In the main room of the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center‘s massive 15,000-square foot office and lab space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, more than sixty developers, designers, and journalists pore over their computer screens. A jumble of empty coffee cups and marked up scraps of butcher paper litter the tabletops while networks of power cords fan out underneath.

The event is The Great Urban Hack, a two-day overnight hackathon, organized by the meetup group Hacks/Hackers, that took place over an intense 30-hour stretch this past weekend. Starting early Saturday morning journalists and developers came together to “design, report on, code and create projects to help New Yorkers get the information they need while strengthening a sense of community.”

The eleven teams that participated in the event worked on a varied set of projects that ranged in scope from collaborative neighborhood mapping to live action urban gaming.

Rearranging and visualizing data

The team that worked on the project “Who’s My Landlord?,” based off of Elizabeth Dwoskin‘s article of the same name in the Village Voice last Wednesday, concerned itself with the task of helping residents determine who owns a given piece of property. Dwoskin’s article points out that for many of the most derelict buildings in the city this link is obfuscated, a huge barrier for city agencies in their task of regulation to protect tenants. The team built a tool that draws from three databases: two from the city to pull the names of building owners, and one state database to look up the address of the owner when there is an intermediate company.

Several groups worked on visualizations of some form of city data. The “Drawing Conclusions” team created a “Roach Map” using the raw data set of restaurant inspection results from the NYC Data Mine. The group wrote a script that scans the data line-by-line and counts each violation by zip code. They then analyze the data, taking into account variation in the number of inspections across zip codes, and plot it on a map of the city which auto-generates every week.

How hackathons work is simple: They define goals and create artificial constraints (like time) to catalyze the process of innovation. The closest journalistic equivalent might be the collaborative rush of a good newsroom working a big breaking story. But is this really the best environment to incubate projects of a journalistic nature? What are the different circumstances that foster the healthiest practices of innovation? And what is the best way to set expectations for an event like this?

The hackathon model

Hackathons like this are a growing trend. A lot can be said for bringing these groups together and into a space outside of their normal work environment. What’s maybe most fascinating to me is the opportunity for cultural interplay as these two groups find themselves more and more immersed in each other’s creative work. As John Keefe, one of the hosts of the event and a senior producer at WNYC, says: “It’s not really journalistic culture to come together and build stuff like this.”

Chrys Wu, a co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers and both a journalist and developer, talked about the group’s different philosophy’s of sharing information: “Your traditional reporter has lots of lots of notes, especially if they’re a beat reporter. There’s also their rolodex or contacts database, which is extremely valuable and you wouldn’t want to necessarily share that. But there are pieces of things that you do that you can then reuse or mine on your own…at the same time technologists are putting up libraries of stuff, they say: ‘I’m not going to give you the secret sauce but I’m definitely going to give you the pieces of the sandwich.'”

Lots of questions remain: what is the best way to define the focus or scope for an event like this? Should they be organized around particular issues and crises? And what’s the best starting point for a journalistic project? Is it with a problem, a data set, a question, or as in the case of the landlord project: the research of a journalist? For all of the excitement around hackathons, this seems like just the beginning.

Photo by Jennifer 8. Lee used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 12, 2010, 10 a.m.
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