My lovely friend and colleague An Xiao Mina recently recommended me for the keynote panel at #Facets2016. Facets is organized by Caroline Sinders, who works at the intersection of design, art and technology.
Our panel theme was “When civic hacking goes awry”, and the panelists were some of the coolest, most interesting people I’ve ever shared a stage with. In addition to me (a journalist), Caroline invited WIRED fellow April Glaser (who has done fantastic organizing work in community radio), tech writer Casey Johnston, Sha Hwang (described by Bloomberg as a “data viz superstar”) and researcher Jade Davis (whose Twitter stream is basically a list of things I wish I’d said).
Here’s the video:
You can see my full presentation above. I also threw the slides online, here.
The presentation gave me a chance to try and clarify some of my thing around what it means to create impact and meaningful change as a mediamaker, particularly in short-term collaborative formats like hackathons. The title of the presentation was “when civic hacking goes awry” and I thought that was a great way of suggesting a critical lens for looking at well-intentioned projects that don’t necessarily endure. As someone who’s organized her fair share of such events, I’ve thought long and hard about how to measure and represent their value.
For Facets, I offered the case study of a previous project that I’d really enjoyed doing, which was the hack4change we’d organized in Delhi back when I was co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers New Delhi (now Hackers/Hackers India). As I said then, I don’t believe this event was perfect, but it provides a useful practical framework for considering some of these questions.
Problem: After the Delhi gang rape of 2012 (warning: graphic description at link), the world’s attention was on women’s rights in Delhi. But the global media narrative about Jyoti Singh’s horrific fate didn’t capture the many ways – legally, socially, economically – women face disenfranchisement in India. The goal of the hackathon was partly to bring together people with various skill sets (engineers, translators, researchers, activists, journalists) to try and find better ways to make these experiences visible.
Data: We took a new approach to data, in the sense that we interpreted “data” as widely as possible. So “data” became the raw material of the stories we wanted to tell, and included the crowd-sourced women’s harassment stories submitted to Whypoll/SafeCity, the audio stories by rural women collected by Gram Vaani, and the case studies meticulously compiled and researched by Breakthrough India (our partner organization in the hackathon). These were all important data, but how would we – as journalists, filmmakers, and storytellers – bring them to life?
Organization: Beforehand, we advertised the event as well as some of the “story streams” or “datasets” we’d have on hand. We appointed group leaders and encouraged potential attendees to reach out to them beforehand if they were interested in their projects. We hoped this format would reduce some of the team-formation confusion that often exists at the start of events like these.
Outcomes: One of the things I took away from this exercise is that organizers of events like these need to have very clear but also very realistic goals in mind for what these types of events can achieve. As I mention in the presentation, I think our hackathon was great at
- teaching people new skills
- creating an inter-disciplinary environment
- generating enthusiasm and awareness
- creating initial ideas and prototypes
I think one of the challenges for organizers is that both participants and outside observers expect events like these to *SOLVE* problems, when the types of problems that we set out to address are often quite complex. If anything, we spent a lot of time at the hackathon understanding that the problem may not be what we thought it was, that it required some energy just to pin down.
Some people also expect hackathons to result in long lasting companies, or life-changing new products. The reality is that companies and products are not static creations, and the best ones evolve significantly over time. There are people who want to change the hackathon format to focus more on pipeline issues, and want the results to feed into longer-term accelerators. This is a great idea, but it’s a fundamentally different one.
Going Awry: At the same time, Caroline’s provocation is a worthy one. There are many different ways for events like this to go awry, and I focus on a few of them below.
The first is a predictable and large adverse event, like a massive data leak that comes from inadequate privacy and safeguards. “Good intentions” is not an excuse, and when working with vulnerable populations, the risks of exposure of people’s data and stories needs to be taken very seriously. As the term “data” increasingly becomes a byword for “the constantly logged material of our lives”, we need better and possibly more standardized best practices for data ethics. At our hackathon, we did talk about anonymization and consent with our data partners and among ourselves, but this is an area that requires firmer guidelines and possibly also better tools. (We have so many great new tools for data visualization, but how many of these tools also talk about data privacy?)
The second, also in the realm of unintended results: a hackathon that aims to create or capture women’s experiences in the media can increase stereotyping and lack of representation. When it comes to people or communities who aren’t regularly represented in the media, it might make sense to reconsider some of our established modes of doing journalistic business (for example, what should the consent process for interviews look like? Can members of a community be offered more input into the story creation process?) If I were to host this event again, I would give more importance to this second set of questions. What does it mean to create better relationships with communities who aren’t regularly represented, and how can mainstream journalism (in particular) become more sensitive to the modern impact of its embedded/historical standards and practices? (One could argue that #beyondcomments, the event I helped host in Feb 2016 at the Media Lab, was an attempt to answer these types of questions in a similar format.)
That said, I think we look at events like hackathons as all-or-nothing scenarios: either you have a positive impact or you have a negative one. The reality that I’ve experienced, as an organizer of hackathons but also as a practitioner more broadly, is that outcomes are often mixed. Great things can happen, but there are also things that you’d probably never do again, or would do very differently. This doesn’t mean that the event was a failure, but rather than learning is an incremental process and neat “solutions” are often illusory. I think these events are good at getting groups of people to spend time on problems that might not otherwise get a lot of attention, but that the people are well-equipped to address. Hackathons are great at fostering experimentation.
I do not share the perception that hackathons are a failure if they do not result in long-term projects, or rather, I do not share the sense that this failure is absolute and renders the format worthless. This question came up at the event, and I said “is longevity the only way to measure the success of an initiative like this?” As I argue, it can also be measured in things like “empathy.” After all, creating a better society is a function of people, not just technology.
Facets Panel: Because of the panelists’ wide-ranging interests, we spent a lot of time on questions that I hadn’t anticipated. I was especially interested when we had a mini-debate over what the term “hacking” really means. One of the participants felt the term had become too diluted, and should really be reserved for technical breaking and entering. Jade offered possibly the best response to this questioner, when she said that the dictionary definition of ‘hacking’ was originally to break something by means of targeted application of energy. I offered my take, which is that when we define ‘hacking’ narrowly by the skills required to do it, we exclude many people from the process who have a right to be there. (After all, if the only people we ever invite to hackathons are software engineers – already a privileged and well-represented group in society – then we miss out on a lot of perspectives that are important from a civic perspective).
Our moderator, the awesome Luke DuBois, asked me a great question about how you get the attendees at events like hackathons to be representative in a truly civic sense. I think inclusivity is a worthy and necessary goal to strive for, but at the same time, as a pragmatist, I believe that every group of people is selected and restricted in some way. Rather than pretend that these restrictions are evil or that they don’t exist, I think it makes more sense to be upfront about the restrictions and to continue to strive for a valuable array of voices.