söndag 23 oktober 2011

Green hackathon

I went to check out a "Green hackathon" event at KTH this weekend (Friday afternoon - Saturday afternoon) and it was organized by two Ph.D. students at my department, Jorge and Hannes. Hackathons (or perhaps rather Hack days) come in many different sizes and shapes, but the basic format is a computer programming 24-hour concentrated programming effort, with teams going from inspiration --> ideas --> concepts --> demo in a very short amount of time.

This hackathon had a "green" (environmental) profile, so the task was to develop ideas and demos that could make the world better (in some way), i.e. decrease our carbon footprint, visualize data and information to help people make better (environmental) decisions etc.

I've never been to one of these events before and I didn't participate in this one either, beyond going to the kick-off and then attending the presentations of the finished projects one day later so I'm basically still pretty clueless. I did talk some to David K. though and he might have been the most experienced participant with a dozen or so hack days under his belt (24 hour business camp, music hack, green hack etc.). He did citysounds.fm at a music hack and it seems to be a pretty cool way of choosing a city and listening to that city's local music.

I can see how a hack day can be a great way to generate ideas and plausible promises of more to come. The whole hack day concept is built on the idea of accessing different kinds of open data that is available on the Internet and to aggregate, integrate and present something that can be pretty impressive despite the short time spent putting it together. The developments of powerful and easy-to-use web technologies are the enablers that can allow hack day participants to whip something useful and original together in just a day.

David K. mentioned that it wasn't really the social aspects that drew him to these events, but rather the chance to fully concentrate on working with a few friends to make an idea come true in limited time and though a concentrated effort. He might think about something cool, but never have the time to do it. Enter hack day and the opportunity to go from idea to demo, and the fact that there is an audience there waiting to hear you present your (hopefully) Great Idea adds an element of pressure to come up with something and to produce.

A hack day is not much of a "competition" though compared to the much tougher team-based programming competitions (championships) I wrote about just a few days ago. Green hack day seem more to be a festival, a get-together or a hangout for people who are interested in computers and programming and perhaps also in changing the world (a little). Here are some specific observations:

- The organizers said they had a hard time thinking of prizes that weren't environmental disasters. First prize was a Kindle ebook reader, or if the winner(s) already had a Kindle, a voucher for e-books for the same amount of money.

- The first winning team did a small plug-in for a web browser that besides destination and price also showed the carbon footprint of last minute trips to near- or far-away destinations. The second winner managed to put carbon emissions into the popular game Minecraft. It was a little ironic that the second winner couldn't accept his price in person because he had left in a hurry to catch his plane back to London!

- Nobody wants to be a party pooper, but I did find it slightly problematic for a green hack day that so many of the participants had traveled so far to participate in the event. With people flying in from Helsinki, London, Berlin, Rome, Greece and the US, the ideas generated at the event can hardly make up for the carbon footprint of people traveling to and from the event...?

- Another uneasy observation was the implicit belief that many (most?) problems can be fixed just by making things visible and transparent. While that's a good start, and while I'm all for transparency, I'm not sure it's that easy to fix all those hard problems we are facing having to do with energy use, carbon emissions, first world luxury lifestyles etc.

- Another interesting observation was that the green hack day site, R1, is the first experimental nuclear reactor in Sweden - now being repurposed for an event attempting to reduce our energy usage!

- One of the organizers, Jorge, didn't really have the time to participate, but did still found the time to contribute to a solution for whenever you stand in a shop and ask yourself if you need this thing you have in front of you - check out his solution at shouldibuythis.org!

PS. My colleague Jorge who was also one of the organizers has summed up the event here.

PPS. I will list new hackathon themes as I come across them:
- First International Women's Hackathon & LadyHacks (July 2013).

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