Hackathons are rapid design and development events at which volunteer participants come together to conceptualize, prototype, and make (mostly digital) products and services.
Coupling with the rapid pace of conceptualising a product or service, prototyping and making do with limited time and resources during the event, is the competition with other teams for the prizes, ranging from cash rewards to a spot in an incubator programme that could potentially transform the initial idea at a hackathon into a startup success.
We often see coverage of the winning teams, their ideas and sometimes their presentations before the judging panel. However, we do not necessarily know how participants reflect upon their own experiences, problems they encounter along the way and adjustments to their goals and strategies under time pressure.
In this blogpost, we try to give a glimpse of these aspects by asking participants how and what they did in the Global Data Fest/Smart City Hackathon which took place in Dublin between 6 – 8 March, 2015. The videos were taken before the teams presented their ideas to the judges, which means they did not know who were going to win and thus the conversation was not about their ‘winning experiences’. Instead, the videos are about how they took into account of all sorts of challenges and the advice they received from the mentors to finish their project. In doing so, we also wish to create cultural memory for the participants and for one the various pursuits of transforming Dublin into a smart city.
Today, we will be sharing videos from the Opening talk and First session: Code, coding and interfaces
Code and the city: Reframing the conceptual terrain Rob Kitchin, NIRSA, National University of Ireland Maynooth
Software has become essential to the functioning of cities. It is deeply and pervasively embedded into the systems and infrastructure of the built environment and in the management and governance of urban societies. Software-enabled technologies and services augment and facilitate how we understand and plan cities, how we manage urban services and utilities, and how we live urban lives. This paper will provide an overarching overview of the ways in which software has become an indispensible mediator of urban systems and the consequent implications, and makes the case for the study of computational algorithms and how cities are captured in and processed through code.
Session 1: Code, coding and interfaces
Code-crowd: How software repositories express urban life Adrian Mackenzie, Sociology, Lancaster University
Is code an expression of urban life? This paper analyses around 10 million software repositories on Github.com from the perspective of how they include cities. The methodology here relies on data-intensive work with bodies of code at a number of different levels. It maps the geographies of Github organisations and users to see how location anchors coding work. More experimentally, it tracks how urban spaces, movements and architectures figure in and configure code. The paper’s focus is less on how code shapes cities and more on apprehending code and coding as a way of experientially inhabiting cities. This approach might better highlight how code expresses urban experiences of proximity, mixing, movement, nearness, distance, and location. It might also shed light on the plural forms of spatiality arising from code, particularly as algorithmic processes become more entangled with each other.
Encountering the city at hackathons
Sophia Maalsen and Sung-Yueh Perng, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
The growing significance of hackathons is currently developing in a mutually informing way. On the one hand, there is an increasing use of hackathons to address issues of city governance – Chris Vein, US CTO for government innovation has described them as ‘sensemaking’ tools for government, encouraging agencies to make use of hackathons and “let the collective energy of the people in the room come together and really take that data and solve things in creative and imaginative ways” (Llewellyn 2012). On the other, regular hack nights appear as creative urban space for citizens to discuss problems they encounter and which are not necessarily considered by government, and produce solutions to tackle these issues.
In this paper, we explore potential opportunities and tensions, as well as excitement and inattentiveness, emerging as solutions are proposed and pursued. Through this, we reflect upon how such processes translate the city and transform ways of living in places where the solutions are applied. We further ask whether the positive discourse surrounding hackathons is justified or whether there are limits to their ability to deal with the complexity of urban issues.
Interfacing urban intelligence Shannon Mattern, Media Studies, New School NY
Technology companies, city governments, and design firms – the entities teaming up to construct our highly-networked cities of the future – have prototyped interfaces through which citizens can engage with the smart city. But those prototypes, almost always envisioned as screens of some sort, embody institutional values that aren’t always aligned with those of citizens who rightfully claim a “right to the city.” Based on promotional materials from Cisco, Siemens, IBM, Microsoft, and their smart-city-making counterparts, it seems that one of the chief preoccupations of our future-cities is to reflect their data consumption and hyper-efficient (often “widgetized”) activity back to themselves. We thus see city “control centers” lined with screens that serve in part to visualize, and celebrate, the city’s own supposedly hyper-rational operation. Public-facing interfaces, meanwhile, are typically rendered via schematic mock-ups, with little consideration given to interface design. They’re portrayed as conduits for transit information, commercial and service locations and reviews, and information about cultural resources and tourist attractions; and as portals for gathering user-generated data. Across the board, these interfacing platforms tend to frame their users as sources of data that feed the urban algorithmic machines, and as consumers of data concerned primarily with their own efficient navigation and consumption of the city.
In this talk, I’ll consider how we might we design urban interfaces for urban citizens, who have a right to know what’s going on inside “’black boxed’ [urban] control systems” – and even engage with the operating system as more than mere data-generators or reporters-of-potholes-and-power-outages. In considering what constitutes an ideal urban interface, we need to examine those platforms that are already in existence, and those that are proposed for future cities. Even the purely hypothetical, the speculative – the “design fiction” – can illuminate what’s possible, technologically, aesthetically, and ideologically; and can allow us to ask ourselves what kind of a “public face” we want to front our cities, and, even more important, what kinds of intelligence and agency – technological and human – we want our cities to embody.
Do come back next Friday! The next session awaits!
As part of the Programmable City project, some of our research involves looking at hackathons, hack nights, and their role in city governance. Hackathon’s are increasingly being used by city governments as a way to tap into the creativity of its citizens and make use of open data to help manage the city and address issues that citizen’s may find important.
Meyer and Ermoshima (2013, 3) categorise hackathons into three types: “issue oriented”, centred around a problem or set of problems; “tech oriented”, focused on developing systems; and “data oriented”, where the data sets required to be worked upon are supplied by the organisers. These events are becoming increasingly appealing to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and governments who see potential in these events to “reform their structure, renew their methods of functioning, and attract the attention of developers” (Meyer and Ermoshima 2013, 3). The social and ethical benefits derived from the use of open governmental data has seen an increase in “civic hackathons”. Following the American “coding for democracy” movement, Meyer and Ermoshima described civic hackers as “technologists, civil servants, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers – anybody – who is willing to collaborate with others to create, build, and invent to address challenges relevant to our neighbourhoods, our cities, our states and our country… a hacker is someone who uses a minimum of resources and a maximum of brainpower and ingenuity to create, enhance or fix something” (2013, 3).
Thus as Meyer and Ermoshima (2013, 5) note hackathons contain an experimental element of bricolage as well as being collaborative, heterogeneous and constituted by hybrid networks, through which they question divisions of technical experts and others. This creates an innovation and problem solving tool that creates “appropriate conditions to work on a social challenge, to develop software and hardware solutions and to create a sustainable community or ecosystem of technical and non-technical experts, lawyers, activists and citizens” (Meyer and Ermoshima 2013, 6)
With regards to civic hackathons or those encouraged by the government, the belief is that hackathons are methods of connecting communities, developing relationships between communities, governments and tech people, and creates a better city for all. It is reflective of the ideal of letting “the collective energy of the people in the room come together and really take that data and solve things in creative and imaginative ways” (Llewellyn 2012).
But do they actually live up to the promise? Are there any success stories where hackathon’s have produced apps which have made a significant change to the city? Or is it more rhetoric with limited real world application and difference? As part of our research we are attending regular hack meet ups such as Code for All Ireland, Coding Grace and Pyladies to get an idea about the dynamics of the groups, what they do for participants and what participants in turn give back to the group and the broader community.
As our research within Dublin hacking spaces is a work in progress, I will look at another example of hacking oriented problem solving for cities. Let’s have a look at where the government has run app competitions to try and provide solutions to city-based problems. A perennial favourite in these contexts and contests, is public transport. How can an app help negotiate the challenges of the public transport commute?
I’ll use Sydney as an example here. In 2012 the New South Wales (NSW) Government held an app hacking competition for developing public transport apps that used real time data and which were intended to help commuters better plan their journey and create a better public transport experience. The three successful apps, TripView, TripGo and Arrivo Sydney were launched in December 2012. According to the NSW Government, the apps contain data spanning 8,200 stops, more than 1,900 buses and close to 1,200 routes throughout Sydney. It is claimed that TripView is one of the most popular apps with close to 1 million requests each week. According to the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian,
Real Time information for buses is changing the way public transport customers travel – they are now able to plan ahead, not just by looking at the timetable but by actually seeing where their bus is located on the route, and its estimated time of arrival… This is just one of the many improvements we are making to improve technology across the transport network to make customer journeys easier.
The apps do seem to be useful. On one morning commute, I overheard a conversation about the realtime apps. This fellow commuter reasoned the apps helped you decide when you needed to leave the house in order to catch your bus on time or let you know how long you had to wait, and observed that “It adds value to the waiting experience”. A happy customer it seems.
The apps were the product of a Transport for NSW (TfNSW) App Hot House which was facilitated by PWC’s Digital Change team. The Hot House was held over a two day period and during this time the teams worked with General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data and API feed that delivered real time bus information to create prototypes of consumer products for mobile phones which they had to pitch to judging panel consisting of Transport for NSW, industry experts and PWC’s Digital Change Team. It was particularly important for teams to demonstrate that their business model could work in the real world and that it would improve the travel experience. The winning teams received:
First access to the real time information
The opportunity to collaborate with TfNSW stakeholders
Promotional support from TfNSW for their apps
You can find a video of the app competition here:
There was some criticism of Transport NSW’s App Hot House project however. The data was made available to only a selected group of developers and there were claims that this created an anti-competitive market which did not benefit consumers. Transport NSW commented that they are considering opening up real time data to other than the approved app users but need to make sure that their internal infrastructure for data delivery is robust and secure enough to support all subscribers and deliver a consistent level of service to customers. Additionally, the real time information was not available to all Sydney commuters:
The real time information will initially be available in the Sydney CBD, the eastern suburbs, the inner west, southern suburbs, northwestern suburbs, the northern beaches and lower North Shore. The apps contain real-time data spanning some 8200 stops, more than 1900 buses and almost 1200 routes across the Sydney Bus Network.
The success of the real time bus apps prompted the State Government to run a similar competition to develop real time train apps for Sydney trains. RailCorp developed a data feed of real time train locations which was made available to developers. Live information from the trains, received by markers placed at stations, was immediately fed back to customers via apps on their handheld devices. According to the Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, Transport NSW was
keen to improve the customer experience on the rail network and we know that a Real Time Train App will give customers the information they need to make decisions about their journey, all in the palm of their hand.
But it was not always a government that was promoting citizen use of data to create tools that would help city service users. There were examples of apps made prior to the App Hot House which the government shut down citing the argument that the transport data system could not yet provide reliable and sustainable feed and therefore the apps couldn’t offer a reliable service. There is also some controversy about the non-universal access to the data when the government did eventually provide it in real time.
Prior to the government endorsed apps, some developers had created apps without support from Transport NSW. In 2012 the government and Google announced that transport data would be available on Google maps, joining 400 other cities which were already doing this. However, the information remained static timetable data, updated once a week, and it seemed the government was resisting releasing real-time data to third parties.
In 2011 Ben Hosken created a real-time app from data released by the government for a two week period before an “app day”. The app was a success receiving 200,000 views in the two weeks it was available before Hosken’s was asked by the NSW government to take it down. The government justified their request to remove the app by saying the system was not yet reliable enough to provide a reliable and sustainable feed, while maintaining that they were committed to providing data to developers. A similar reason was also given to another developer, Marcus Schappi, in 2010.
Accessing the data would however require developer’s signing agreements with the state government. According to Berejiklian, “That’s a formal relationship, and obviously if we do embark on that in the future we want to make sure the organisation we are dealing with is going to respect the integrity of the data we are providing them and is going to make sure that they are used in a good way that’s going to help people.”
Hosken and Schappi, were not the only developers who were ahead of Transport NSW’s ideas on the use of their data. TripView developer, Nick Maher was also threatened with copyright infringement, along with other developers who created the apps, Metro Sydney and Transit Sydney, by NSW government agency, Railcorp. This was despite Railcorp not offering a comparable service.
Maher developed TrainView in 2007 and TripView in 2008 had to stop selling both apps after threats from RailCorp. Maher claims that he had asked them at the time whether they had any problems using the data and they had said they didn’t have any. He continued to sell the applications before recently contacting them about some updates. RailCorp then said they had changed their stance with regard to copyright and that they weren’t giving people permission to use their data in third-party apps.
RailCorp has contacted about four developers requesting them to remove from sale mobile applications that breach RailCorp’s copyright over its timetables because these applications were providing out-of-date timetables that had the potential to confuse and mislead our customers…Copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp. Any unlicensed republication of the timetables represents a breach of this copyright. We have not pursued any legal action to date.
Railcorp did however open up its data through a competition in 2013. According to Maher, this was a good thing: “They could have built their own app but instead opened it up to competition which is good because you get more innovation that way.” He added that the concern with the earlier apps had been because the government was worried the data was incorrect. NSW premier, Nathan Rees, had to intervene after a social media storm, and gave his support to the developers.
Intellectual property lawyer, Trevor Choy, said that even though RailCorp was a public service, copyright law was “biased” in favour of the Government and did not make any distinction between information that should be a public service, like train timetables, and private information. “Government agencies are supposed to use their powers wisely, but here they are behaving exactly like a private company preventing a competitor from launching a ‘competing product’” said Choy.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Dr Nicholas Gruen, former chairperson of the Australian federal government’s Web 2.0 taskforce, who welcomed Berejiklian and the transport’s department’s move to open up the transport data to Google, noting that people have been attempting to access that data in NSW for five years. He cautioned however, that in Sydney’s case there was evidence bureaucracy was weighing the minister down, and referred to the fact that there “are over 400 cities in the world that provide that sort of data to Google and others, and many of them do it on an open basis”. Gruen suggested that to fully utilise government data, required lowering hurdles to its use which means “making it as easy as possible for the developer’s computer to tap into a stream of information provided by the government without, if possible, stopping to ask permission”.
There is clearly a debate about the openness of the data and the way the government utilises both this data and the skills of developers to manage city systems. This example is not true of all cities as Gruen alluded to. Cities have their own approaches to data, whom they make it accessible to, and to which areas it is applied. The Sydney transport apps example does however provide insight into the complexity and legal issues surrounding the use of data. It is also an example of where the product of the hackathon has been successfully adopted by city users.
These interfaces to the smart city suggest that we’ve traded in our environmental wisdom, political agency and social responsibility for corporately-managed situational information, instrumental rationality and personal consumption and convenience. We seem ready to translate our messy city into my efficient city.
Hackathons and the apps they produce may not therefore serve all or benefit the majority of the community and are often inspired by an individual’s perspective on what they think would make the city better and their own life within that city more pleasurable. While the Sydney transport apps discussed above do seem to have been enthusiastically adopted and have no doubt improved many commuters transport experience, it should also be remembered that not all areas in the wider Sydney region were given access to real time transport information, and that not all transport users utilise the technology that enables the app. When discussing hackathons as part of the wider programmable city discourse we should continue to ask what and who’s vision of the city does it present and how does this shape the city spaces and urban experience for everyone.
We’ll be trying to gain further insight into the role of hackathons in the city and whether they are successful and live up to their hype through our ongoing research and by attending regular hackathons and hack meet ups. We’ll keep you posted on the work that hackathons do in the smart city.
Llewellyn, A. (2012, June 29). The power of hackathons in government. (S. Herron, Editor, & NASA) Retrieved 2 May , 2014, from open.NASA: http://open.nasa.gov/blog/2012/06/29/the-power-of- hackathons-in-government/
Mattern, S. 2014. Interfacing Urban Intelligence. Places: Design Observer. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/how-do-we-interface-with-smart-cities/38443/ (accessed 17 June 2014).
Meyer, M. and K. Ermoshina. 2013 Bricolage as collaborative exploration: transforming matter, citizens and politics. Draft paper for the i3 Conference Cooperating for innovation: devices for collective exploration Telecom ParisTech 2.12.2013 accessed 15/7/14 from http://www.i-3.fr/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Meyer_conferenceI32013.pdf