What the success of our hackathon means for the Canvas community

Al Jazeera Canvas
Feb 4, 2015 · 4 min read

Last December we hosted our inaugural media innovation hackathon, Media in Context, to serve as an informal launch to our new media innovation community, Canvas. Canvas is the brainchild of our group, Al Jazeera Innovation and Research. Our team is not made up of digital content curators or web marketing gurus. We are more accurately a group of geeks with a shared passion for story-driven media and open-source technology. Canvas was formed to be a community of people who share these passions and like us, have bold and grand ideas for what the future of media can look like.

Our goal for the hackathon was to create an environment for experimentation, collaboration, long-term relationships, and hopefully, a few world-changing ideas to come out. We sought to de-emphasize prizes and competition in order to incentivize collaboration. All projects were submitted under open-source licensing. We did not set out to see how many prototypes this group could produce and sought to do everything we could to discourage teams from producing another boring variation of the same app. Rather, our goal was to host and ultimately build a community that could collaborate around cool ideas.

We believe strong and meaningful collaboration cannot be possible without diversity. This includes a diversity of skills, but more importantly, a diversity of backgrounds and experiences coming together to work towards a shared vision. Diversity has always been part of Al Jazeera’s Code of Ethics and is an important part of our DNA. We believe that diversity is what is going to ignite a new type of media innovation. Not just “innovation” based on the latest technology trend, but around a shared vision for the future that people from different backgrounds can believe in and ultimately shape.

We called for applications from people interested in the intersection of media and technology from around the world. Participants were not just selected based on their resumes as a developer, designer, or journalist. We factored in an applicant’s interest in media and innovation, and their ability to be part of a team. The hackathon brought 86 people from 37 countries to Doha to hack at challenges centered on better contextualizing media. Among our group were a Pulitzer Prize winner, members of an R&D team at another large media organization, and also several young developers and journalists still in college. We were particularly excited by the fact that 40% of the participants were women. One (male) participant noted, “I never thought I would be the only guy on the team at a hackathon.” Moving forward, we are continuing to look for ways to build on this trend and create a space where everyone can feel comfortable to contribute.

Challenges

Our theme “Media in Context” raised the question: how can we use technology to better inform media production, distribution, and consumption? The 12 challenges had teams experimenting with everything from NLP tools, Google Glass, big data, Arduinos, and an old-fashioned radio for solutions. Here’s just a brief look at two of the challenges:

Media on the Move:

Humanity is always on the move so our technology should move with us as well. Teams who hacked at this challenge looked for ways to bring content to media consumers in as many different scenarios as possible.

What’s in the Papers today, Hal?:

Conversation has been the most crucial medium for sharing conversation for thousands of years. Advancements in voice recognition and natural language processing have extended this medium to our technologies. Teams were posed with the challenge of bringing voice, language, and conversation to discover and consume media content.

Projects

We were blown away by the quality of the projects this group was able to produce in just 3 days. Participants didn’t even know each other when they arrived to Doha, but formed 19 determined teams that worked cohesively to build some remarkable projects. Here are some of the projects:

tinyfm: The tinyfm team hacked a Rasberry Pi to broadcast local content via a radio transmitter. The mobile web-app enables users to interact with content and allows people to interact with content like a jukebox to share with others.

Reporta: Reporta is a web and Google Glass app that uses NLP and AI technologies to bring news to users in natural conversation. The team hopes the tool will help people, especially youth, connect again with news in the 24 hour news cycle.

Acumen: Acumen is a Chrome extension that analyzes content, author background information, and audience reception to tackle potential bias in a story. Acumen provides no evaluative judgement, but displays relevant information to empower the reader.

LaserTag: Lasertag is a Wordpress plugin that suggests relevant links for highlighted keywords in an article. This plugin enhances contextual linking, and alleviates any loss of institutional memory.

Perspectiv.es: Perspectives, a Chrome extension, augments news stories by suggesting articles, from various different perspectives, about the same topic or subject. Using semantic analysis to identify alternate content, Perspectives equips users to more easily identify possible media bias.

Impact

With Media in Context, the collaboration and innovation exceeded our expectations. One of the participants pointed out his favorite part of the hackathon was “connecting with great minds full of ideas and solving challenges that were actually meaningful.” We believe we challenged an incorrect notion that hackathons are just events with few or moderate outcomes. One of the projects produced entirely from scratch at Media in Context, Street Stories, was adopted for use by a major Chinese newspaper just 11 days after it was demoed at the hackathon. This is a testament to what can be created when talented and creative people are brought together and are free to experiment.

We think everyone should have a role in creating a better media future. This hackathon is the beginning of a global community of media hackers and thinkers determined to take risks and pursue bold ideas. We ultimately believe this community can drive a better media future for all.

Al Jazeera Canvas

Al Jazeera Digital platform for experimentation

    Al Jazeera Canvas

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    Canvas is a new initiative from Al Jazeera Media Network to build a network of experimentalists in Tech and Media

    Al Jazeera Canvas

    Al Jazeera Digital platform for experimentation