Hackathons are getting trendy. Not just in journalism, but health care, education, entrepreneurism, crisis management, mobile tech, government, and other arenas. Yes, it’s another technology buzz word, but one that hopefully sticks around and evolves into a combustible formula. Bringing together software experts and social leaders who sprint together to solve big challenges is a remarkable thing, especially when there’s a $10,000 prize attached to it.
That’s the ante that KING 5 News put up over the weekend, in the first ever hackathon run by the broadcast industry. The NBC affiliate’s digital media director, Mark Briggs, laid out his vision of a means of unearthing quality news in the same way that one would find the right place to eat brunch in New York City. Describing his recent trip to the Big Apple, Briggs pointed out that finding a delicious spot could take hours, or it could take five minutes; the difference being whether you know someone who lives there.
Other information challenges were presented by co-organizer Shauna Causey and local meme expert Ben Huh, who both had different ways of expressing a similar need for relevant information served up in a dynamic, user friendly environment. Mr. Huh shared a mockup of his recently announced Moby Dick Project, which generated a warm current of ideas through the room, eventually leading 12 people to step forward and pitch their solution in under two minutes.
Grinding around the clock is not for the faint of heart. Roughly one half of the 65 people who signed up actually made it out to the Friday night kickoff, followed by a 30 percent evaporation of those people by the start of the first working day. Part of the dissipation was due to the pull of AT&T's mobile hackathon hosted the same weekend.
Participants could sign up as a designer (8), news geek (30), technologist (21), or developer (11). As is typical in tech situations, the demographic was skewed heavily male. In fact, you could count the number female competitors on your nose (two). However, there is a hacker movement that has worked to change that with a ladies-only hackathon.
Based on a show of hands, half the crowd reported that they had been to a hackathon before. Some were graduates of Startup Weekend (which began in Seattle), others had helped with Random Hacks of Kindness and Crisis Commons.
As expected, Seattle’s tech industry had a clear presence in the room. The event took place on Adobe’s Fremont campus, who donated their shiny space and helped purchase some of the food. Amazon gave away a $50 of free AWS Cloud hosting to all participants who showed up and also footed the pizza bill. The winning team had a current Microsoft employee on board, as well as a former employee who recently walked away from his job to start his own company. Most people were locals, though one pair came from Portland, and one fellow even flew in from San Francisco to bust his chops for both the KING5 and AT&T hackathons. There were at least a few startups that were represented amongst the crowd as well, the ones I met with were from Timber Software and DocuSign.
Also interesting were two Microsoft employees hovering the room who were evangelizing the Open Data Protocol (Odata), which they happily develop during their day jobs. They were very helpful in providing general information not just about their product, but all things big data, and even let me pick their brains about various pet peeves and challenges across tech in general. Although they were very candid and unbiased in their opinions, it’s worth mentioning that employees of big companies like Microsoft sign a contract that they cannot participate in certain activities outside of the job (i.e. hackathons) that may conflict with the business interests of their employer. They chose to forfeit their odds of competing for the $10,000 in order to avoid brushing up against any sort of dispute, but were pleasantly willing to donate their time to help others succeed.
After punching away through the 48 hour weekend, “Dimensions” came out on top. Cooked up by Leon Wong and a team of four others (Mohammad Almalkawi, Lewis Lin, Adam Loving, Becker IV), Dimensions takes its own spin on news filtration and curation. Based on the premise that even personalized RSS tools like Google Reader are still a dumping ground for too much information, Dimensions allows users to filter through their news feeds based on location, timeline, and friends’ interests. It has both personalized and social elements, delivering custom news that can be drilled down into various “dimensions” while allowing users to view the different news feeds of their friends and other prominent users. The team managed to put up an impressive live demo, considering it was created over the course of just 48 hours.
You can also check out the nine other projects that were demoed over the weekend by looking at the notes I jotted here (feel free to fill in any details I may have missed). The other contenders also had some pretty nifty hacks to share. There were projects designed to break stories and publish audio through your phone, serve up personalized news based on similarities to others, and collaboratively curate tweets based on importance and chronology.
So what's next? Even a $10,000 prize will have a tough time answering a few million dollar questions.
As evidenced by the lackluster adoption and later abandonment of Google Wave, even really cool tools have to be picked up by a fair amount of people in order to stay healthy and remain useful. It’s easy to forget how wide the digital divide really is, and difficult to predict what kind of new habits people are willing to adopt. Are there enough news junkies out there who will want to add yet another tool into their consumption diet?
Similar to other high energy gatherings, hackathons still have a “post-conference blues” effect. Many projects with good intentions undergo silent decay once the creators step back into the vortex of life’s routines. It was good to hear that local disaster expert Pascal Schuback is still working tirelessly to get the MadPub framework deployed on a national scale (built in Seattle during Random Hacks of Kindness 2.0), and he reported feeling optimistic about its eventual adoption by FEMA and other government agencies. However he told me that it’s rare to see hackathon projects evolve into live deployable applications.
It is undetermined if KING 5 will find a way to integrate Dimensions into their news product, but Briggs did discuss his intention to be a liaison for the project and see what happens. It would be interesting to see KING 5 reporters themselves using the app to share the “dimensions” of stories that they both report, as well as consume.
Regardless of the tangible outcomes, there is a feeling of accomplishment that pervades the hackathon spirit. Professional networking is inevitable when working under a time crunch with a room full of strangers, and everyone walks away having learned a little bit more about what it takes to make technology work for the rest of us.