Phillip Smith
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Putting #MediaInContext & Making Software

Musings on Al Jazeera's first media innovation hackathon

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Around this time last Monday, I had forgone sleep for more than 24 hours and consumed enough RedBull to ensure I would not sleep for many hours to come. What fuelled this all-nighter was the excitement of working on a promising product with an amazing team at Al Jezeera’s inaugural hackathon in Doha, Qatar.

There have been several pieces written about the event itself – like those by Matt Carroll, Chris Wink, Mathew Ingram, and Alastair Reid – as well, Friedrich Lindenberg documented the story behind our team’s project and asked “What if journalists had story writing tools as powerful as those used by programmers?

For me, the experience itself was unparalleled. I’ve participated in two previous hackathons, as well I’ve helped to organize several more. But the dynamics of this event were markedly different: bringing almost 90 participants to the rather exotic location of Doha, produced by the all-star team behind Second Muse, and the attention given to the pre-event challenges and communication. These factors all coalesced to produce one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that are remembered for years to come.

Why a hackathon?

All that said, with a week to reflect (and to recover from two 20+ hour flights), the questions that I’m still curiously exploring are:

  • What is the value proposition that hackathons provide to an organization like Al Jazeera?
  • How will they eventually see a return the investment into what was surely one of the world’s most expensive gathering of news-interested hackers?

Recruiting

My initial thought was recruitment – specifically, that Al Jazeera would look to this event as an opportunity to solicit psuedo-resumes from more than 1400 individuals interested in the news-technology space via the call for applications. From there, they would select 90 participants, fly them to Doha, and have the opportunity to observe them in a simulated deadline-driven situation for 48 hours.

In hindsight, I didn’t get the sense that this was the biggest factor for Al Jazeera. That said, there were an ample number of AJ staff in attendance, and they were all quite curious about what was being built – so maybe the recruitment strategy will still bear out down the road.

Publicity & recognition

Without a doubt, I believe that Al Jazeera was using this hackathon – part of what they propose will be an ongoing innovation initiative called “Canvas” – as a way to put their stake in the ground of the “news innovation” landscape, as organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post, and several other large news organizations have done in the past.

This event worked to lift the veil off of Al Jazeera. It provided an intimate glimpse of their mission – to become the world’s most trusted news network, reaching people no matter who or where they are – to a room full of attentive hackers, as well as hand-picked mentors from some of the most innovative University programs in the space, like Northwester’s Knight Lab and MIT Media Lab’s “Future of News” initiative.

Network

One of the objectives cited by both Al Jazeera staff and Second Muse was the facilitation of a global network of news innovators. I like to think that the network idea has the most potential, but it is also the most elusive goal.

In my experience, networks either form or they don’t (and when they do, they are generative for years to come). I’m not sure there’s a perfect recipe for success. The hackathon certainly worked to forge some fast friendships – no doubt those will last – but most of us at the event were only able to meaningfully connect with a handful of other participants. It remains to be seen if we can leverage this event to stay in touch and collaborate in meaningful ways in the future.

Raw material

At the end of a hackathon, probably the most evident artifact is the raw material that’s left behind. In the case of Al Jazeera’s first event, there’s a substantial trove of projects to refer to – 19 teams submitted projects, all of them open source.

My guess is that most products produced at hackathons cease their development the moment the event is over. Another gut assumption is that most of the raw material produced at these events never gets adopted in any significant way.

This Al Jazeera hackathon may be different, however, if this anecdotal evidence bears out:

  • There are already conversations underway to continue the development of our team’s project, Newsclip.se, or to merge it with other similar work being done.
  • I suspect that several other projects like Perspectiv.es and LaserTag, both available on Github, will also be evolved and publicly released. Both demonstrate impressive potential after just 48 hours of development.
  • In my very brief conversations with the Al Jazeera online newsroom team about the event’s results, there was genuine interest in the tools that were developed. There is a very real possibility that one of these tools might appear in the Al Jazeera newsroom in the very near future.

What was the result?

In my experience as a hackathon organizer, you are often holding your breath until the project presentations – never quite knowing what results to expect. And, if you’re organizing a hackathon for another organization, as Second Muse was in this case, I’m sure the pressure is intense to deliver impressive outcomes. Just bringing the right people together is not enough on its own.

Shortly after the presentations began last Monday – on the main stage, in front of a roomful of fellow participants, mentors, Al Jazeera staff, and high-profile judges – it was clear that Second Muse could safely breath a collective sigh of relief, in the knowledge of a job well done.

The projects were at the same time impressive and practical. Some took aim at the future, some squarely at the challenges of today. One theme was common among them all: the spirit of taking risks, loosing a lot of sleep, and pouring every ounce of energy into the idea of bringing a product to life.

And that will be an experience to remember.

(And a huge thanks to my team for making the event so memorable: Eva Constantaras, Kasia Dybek, Bruno Faviero, Heinze Havinga, and Friedrich Lindenberg.)

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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