Yes, and… CODEX hack-a-thon 2017

What I enjoy the most about fiction books (aka novels) is the part in the beginning where the story hasn’t started yet. The reader is unsure at this point of the ultimate trajectory the story will take.

When I attended the CODEX Hack-a-thon at MIT the weekend of February 11/12, one of the first things we did was write out a name tag with our name and the title of a favorite book. My chosen book was the last one I had read — Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi’s book is an amazing work of fiction spanning centuries and following the progeny of a family divided geographically by the slave trade. Two sisters are at the heart of the novel and each chapter checks in with the next generation — thus positioning the reader always in a state of unknowing what the next story will be — thus avoiding a stale plot.

In the book each chapter is a new occasion for reader and author to explore new possibilities and ideas. The beginning of the CODEX Hack-a-thon had a similar feeling — there was time to meet new people, brainstorm questions and problems, but soon it was clear that one must pick a project, pick a group, and commit to that plot, that story, for the next 24 hours.

CODE encouragement at MIT Media Lab

Before attending the hack-a-thon I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m not a coder, I wasn’t sure what skills I was bringing to the table. I thought being armed with ideas was my best strategy for being helpful. I brainstormed with colleagues, creating a list of projects that might be worth pursuing. What I learned later was instead of focusing on wish list items (“wouldn’t it be nice if we could do X”) it would have been more useful to come up with specific problems to solve.

At the hack-a-thon there were presentations about sponsors products that we could use and from people that had very definite projects they would work on. After the presentations a number of us still exploring our group and project options joined in a guided design learning exercise. It emphasized the improv ethos of “yes, and”. The exercise let all members of the group express their ideas individually on post it notes. We then grouped like ideas together and then narrowed in on one topic/problem to focus on.

some ideas based on the question “what bothers you about reading/books?”

I vacillated between two groups and then chose to work with people interested in the problem of motivation when it comes to long form reading.

Brainstorming

As (i’m assuming) we all know, it’s harder for people to read long books these days. There’s so much to distract people and you don’t get any sense of accomplishment until you actually finish a book. We were able to narrow in on this issue and what we would do about it using the following prompt: The problem is X [fewer people are reading long form] because Y [there’s more competition with our time. What if Z [we gamify]? This exercise helped us form a group and a topic within an hour or so.

From there out it’s not so exciting, this is where the plot drives on. Sure it was fun meeting new people (2 in our group were undergraduate students and alum of AllStarCode (which sounded like a cool program supporting diversity in tech)), but this is the part where all the work happens. And for me, I wasn’t sure what that meant. It ended up being creating a PowerPoint that would explain our project and what the future might hold. Also I got a lot of writing done for another project :) The CODEX atmosphere definitely fosters work and even if I wasn’t working on the hack I had chosen, I still got into and appreciated the focused time.

The app we envisioned, litbit, is a Fitbit app for reading. Something that would magically record and reward the reading one did on a device, or something that you could manually enter data into. The range of data collected and how it was displayed ignited our imagination.

Sunday afternoon was the time to share out what we had been working on. The crowd was very supportive, and most of the ideas were pretty amazing. Some of my favorites:

Two Wikipedia related projects — Influence Tree and Serendipity

Serendipity

The most practical project — Public Library Data

Best book recommendations — BookSplice

BookSplice

The most distracting — LitRen

Funniest — King Lolcat Translation Project

The King Lolcat Translation Project

Best way to browse The NewYorker — NewYorker Department Browser

So many other cool projects!

more great projects!

In the end it was a very fun weekend and it felt like a productive use of time. There was a sense of accomplishment and a sense that I had done something, learned something new, and left knowing how I could have been a little more proactive, with a better appreciation for the skills I already have, and a better idea of what I can bring to the table at future hack-a-thons.

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