When Civic Hacking Goes Awry — A Media Maker’s Perspective

Several weeks ago, I spoke on 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”. In addition to me (a journalist), Caroline invited WIRED fellow April Glaser, tech writer Casey Johnston, Sha Hwang and researcher Jade Davis.

Here’s the video:

I also threw my slides online, here.

I’m so glad Caroline invited me, because the presentation gave me a chance to try and clarify some of my thinking around the hackathons I’ve organized as a mediamaker. One of these hackathons was specifically billed as a “hack4change.” Even at the time, I realized that the name was reductive. A technical action (hacking) can only ever be one small part of a complex social outcome (change). This reductiveness is one of the lures of organizing events like these. At Facets, Caroline gave us a chance to think critically about how we define success in these formats. The title of the keynote was “when civic hacking goes awry”. How do you measure the value and impact of civic-themed collaborative projects, especially when outcomes aren’t what you might hope for or expect? What qualifies as a tangible outcome? And how do you avoid causing more harm than good?

I offered up hack4change as a case study. The event is one that I helped organize in Delhi when I was a co-organizer of Hacks/Hackers New Delhi (now Hackers/Hackers India). If I were to organize this event again, I would do it differently — I would create a more participatory structure, possibly a more long-term storytelling engagement or immersion. Because I was aware of the potential challenges to the model, I was hesitant to bring it up at the conference. At the same time, I believe in the importance of feedback on our work.

The Event: After the Delhi gang rape of 2012 (warning: graphic description at link), the world’s attention was on women’s rights in Delhi. But as a single woman living in Delhi, I was frustrated with how the global media narrative around the crime didn’t capture the many ways — legally, socially, economically — women faced disenfranchisement in India. This disenfranchisement existed in statistics, but it also existed in stories, stories that I thought should be better and more widely told. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned us about the danger of a single story, and I felt as if the Delhi gang rape had become the single story. When in fact, the story was multiple, rich and nuanced.

The hackathon was born out of this frustration. Was there a way to bring together people with diverse skill sets (engineers, translators, researchers, activists, journalists) to try and tell a few more of the many stories of women living in India?

Data: 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 in compelling digital formats?

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

  1. teaching people new skills
  2. creating an inter-disciplinary environment
  3. generating enthusiasm and awareness
  4. 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 and more than half the task is defining the problem in the first place. Ethan Zuckerman touches on this challenge in a recent essay on prison reform. Many storytellers — good ones, anyway — are experts at mining the productive ambiguity of anecdotes. But each story is only part of a whole.

I’ve also come across the mindset that hackathons should 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 and incubators. This is a great idea, but it’s a fundamentally different one from what we were hoping to accomplish, which was to widen the net in terms of what was considered a story worth telling.

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. A few things we thought about:

Data leaks. 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 could use 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 and protection?)

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 another event, I would love to focus on building better and collaborative sets of ethics for community journalism. 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?

But the other risk is that we look at events like hackathons as all-or-nothing scenarios: either you have a positive impact or you have a negative one. Either you create a company or you create a failure. But the civic hackathon is the other side of the startup-focused hackatahon. For us, collaboration became a mechanism for addressing problems that were too complex for one person to solve in a day. It offered a way to rethink how we represented and engaged with material as creators.

Facets Panel: Interestingly, no one asked the questions I would have asked. One of the participants felt the term “hackathon” 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 for a civic project).

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 wide variety of voices.

Was it worth it? The real question here. What did we accomplish? How do we measure value at events like this? And can we ever successfully say we did everything we can to avoid negative outcomes? As Courtney Martin writes, “ There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.” At the end of the day, as journalists, we were solving our problems, but these problems were inextricable from the sensitive material of other people’s lives. By itself, that reality is a huge point of complexity. There are models like StoryCorps and Video Volunteers that offer blended approaches, or that dispense altogether with the professional-nonprofessional divide between interviewer and interviewee. These models are worth examining, especially if the goal is to make journalism not just more accountable but also more participatory.

Other thoughts on defining and measuring impact at events like hackathons? Let me know!

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