If you don’t know me personally, you probably don’t know that Azavea and I were involved in the planning for the recent Canvas media innovation hackathon convened this November by Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, themed around “Media in Context.” The organizing credit is due to Al Jazeera Innovation and Research – a new group that began this year at Al Jazeera that is focusing on media and technology innovation – which is why we’ve been quiet about the event ourselves. Al Jazeera brought on SecondMuse, our partner, for operational support and we have been collaborating together on the event since this summer.
At the end of the day, Azavea is a geospatial civic software development firm, not an international news agency like Al Jazeera or a collaboration strategy and hackathon organizing company like SecondMuse. Still, civic hackathons are useful and complementary to our technology work and community-building efforts in the civic tech field, so we’ve developed some experience in running them over the past few years – often in parallel with SecondMuse. They were one of the sponsors for Hacks for Democracy, one of Azavea’s first large public hackathons. Also, SecondMuse and Azavea sat side-by-side in organizing the Philadelphia-local (us) and global (them) components of last year’s International Space Apps Challenge. Until now though, our firms had never worked as full partners on an event, despite each of us having a major presence in Philadelphia and similar focuses in civic and social impact technology. So I was glad to contribute some of Azavea’s expertise to this effort as a partner.
Though many have lauded #MediaInContext as a successful event now that it’s complete, including our nearly 100 participants, mentors, and judges, the fact is the organizing team pulled the bulk of this large event off in just a hair under 3 months! This level of success was not a foregone conclusion back when we started in September.
Lots and lots of participants and many other commentators have already written about most of the solutions that were developed at Canvas and other aspects of the event. SecondMuse has also written its own blog about the event. We’re geography nerds at Azavea though, so for my “reporting” I wanted to dive deeper into the geographic context of Al Jazeera’s Media in Context hackathon!
Hackers of Arabia
It’s hard to believe how far the humble “civic hackathon” has come in the past few years. In 2011, when I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the open government movement and decided to include a chapter on civic hackathons, it was hard to even find solid examples and sources for my research. Only 3 years later, Azavea’s been concretely involved in more civic hackathons just around Philadelphia than I could have found proof of existence of anywhere in the country back then.
However, the rise of our civic hacking community in these years has not been universal, geographically speaking. North America, South America, Europe, and even pockets of Asia and Africa each have solid communities of civic technologists, but as evidenced by the map above of the 2013 Space Apps hackathon locations, there are large swathes of the world where the civic hacking wave has yet to crest. The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) is one such area, which made this Al Jazeera hackathon all the more exciting. Journalism and civic hacking can both help promote participatory democracies and engaged communities – it would be thrilling to see more of each of these things in every part of the world.
Around the World in 80 Hacks
The Media in Context hackathon was unique not only because it was happening in a part of the world where hackathons are uncommon, but also because we were bringing the world to the hackathon. The application process was global, and we received over 1,400 applications from talented journalists, data storytellers, and civic hackers all over the world. Our final set of 85 participants that were selected and were able to attend the event represented 37 countries and traveled from every inhabited continent on Earth.
This also may be one of the only hackathons where substantial jetlag may have impacted each team’s competitive advantage. Our furthest-traveled participants flew to Qatar all the way from Mexico City, over 14,000 kilometers!
(999 Less Than) 1001 Arabian Nights of Hacking
Within the span of a few hours on Saturday morning, November 29th, these 85 participants debated, discussed, and whiteboarded their way through 12 example challenges as well as a 13th participant-submitted challenge, finally coalescing into 19 hackathon teams ranging from 3-7 people. Coming from Azavea, one of my personal favorite challenges was #4: Mapping an Understanding. Many news outlets already employ web maps in their reporting, but the use of GIS and spatial analysis tools to tell journalism stories has tremendous potential that has yet to be fully explored in my opinion. So I was excited to see what teams came up with in response to this challenge.
Two teams took on this challenge, MapCake and MapFour, and came up with completely different tools. Approaching from the “Consumption” phase of media, MapFour sought to make it easier for media consumers to browse the news geographically. MapFour sifts through the Al Jazeera and New York Times APIs for locations in articles, and plots them on a map the user can browse. The team also incorporated a time-slider, for viewing different stories that erupt in the same places over time.
MapCake, on the other hand, took a “Production” angle on the challenge. Understanding it can be extra work for journalists to create web maps for their stories, MapCake employs an intuitive “highlight-and-geocode” workflow enabling the mapping and tagging of locations straight from an article’s text. The geocoding is pretty accurate even without much additional context than just a city name, too.
I was really surprised with teams that addressed totally different challenges like “Looking at the Numbers” and “Fully Immersed in Media” and “Media on the Move”, yet also incorporated maps and geospatial thinking into their projects.
I was amazed with the Narrata team’s easy uploader that effortlessly blends a story narrative and temporal geodata. The result from just two CSVs is an embeddable interactive map and chart allowing media consumers to dive into time-series geodata to explore weekly or monthly trends, as in their South African protests example. Narrata saves time for journalists, who don’t need to code-up a new visualization for every article with time and place data, and provides an immersive interactive for consumers – in a way addressing both the “production” and “consumption” phases of media in one app!
Street stories is another team that created both a compelling example and a great framework that’s already being re-used by other media organizations. The project turns Google Streetview into a storytelling tool, by embedding tweets, YouTube videos, narratives, and even background sounds directly into the streetview “sphere”. What emerges is an immersive experience that allows one to imagine themselves – visually and audibly – at the real site of an event as it’s happening.
I’ve been to and organized a lot of hackathons but the Canvas Media in Context hackathon was truly awe-inspiring. Tremendous credit is due to Al Jazeera Innovation and Research for coming up with the vision for the event and having the leadership to make it all happen. The projects that emerged and the exotic venue in Qatar were also magical. But by far the part I’m missing most two weeks later is the people. Our 100 participants and mentors were grinning the entire way through despite the jetlaggy, intense environment. The fact that the #mediaincontext hashtag is still going and some projects have already been re-used tells me this passionate journalism and technology community is just getting started. Even if you weren’t there with us for the inception, sign up for the Canvas newsletter, vote for your favorite projects by January 15th to win the People’s Choice Award, and stay tuned – much of the story has yet to be written!