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Tom Meagher


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What I learned organizing a hackathon

It all started in September, at the Online News Association’s conference in San Francisco. I crashed the #wjchat party and ended up meeting the infamous Debbie Galant, the force of nature behind Baristanet who was just starting the NJ News Commons. We talked about journalism in Jersey. I floated the idea of a news hackathon, and she was intrigued.

Fast forward through a hurricane, an election, months of planning and promotion, and 24 hours of hacking. I sat in a lecture hall at Montclair State University listening in awe to 11 teams of journalists and programmers pitch their projects to change news in New Jersey.

Of course, I’m glossing over many logistical details here. I’ll just say that we could not have pulled it off without the generosity and advice of our sponsors and partners, especially the News Commons and the university, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, CartoDB, O’Reilly, The Star-Ledger, The Record, Patch, Echo and many others.

I couldn’t believe we pulled it off. There’s no way I could have imagined in September how much I’d learn about building community, blending cultures and sowing the seeds for us to think about news and data in new ways. Among those lessons:

  • It was a serious miscalculation on my part to try to start at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Neither journalists nor developers are early risers. As we waited for folks to drift in, we had to start late and rush some of the presentations.
  • One of the biggest challenges was trying to manage people’s expectations of what they’d get out of giving up a weekend to stare at a computer screen on a college campus. Some people wanted to learn to code. Others wanted nerds to help them with their next big project. A few, I imagine, wanted to network for a job. We wanted everyone to feel like she or he could be a part of this experience and could offer something, no matter previous experience or skill level. For some newsroom denizens whose only exposure to developers was their much maligned IT staff, this was a revolutionary idea. They have been trained to treat technologists like a deli counter: Order up whatever newfangled internet thing you need and wait for it to show up. My hope was at the end of the hackathon, our reporters and developers could start to imagine how they can work together. I think on that front we succeeded.
  • We may have overloaded the schedule with speakers, and our talks were geared too heavily toward journalists. Some of the participants would have liked more discussion of the process of creating news apps rather than the concepts of data journalism and news app thinking. Others wanted less yakking and more hacking.
  • It’s just as important for us to bring programmers to the news world as it is to introduce journalists to the development process. We succeeded on the latter, but we need to do more for the former. We could have used speakers from the tech world who would have lured more programmers.
  • I wish we had more diversity in our roster of speakers. I was thrilled to have Emily Bell as one of our judges. A majority of the folks on our planning committee were women, as were many of our participants. But I think we erred in not having more women presenters, giving a false impression of the state of news development and the programming world as a whole.
  • We just didn’t have enough developers. We needed to have more than one on each team, preferably someone with backend skills and someone else with frontend skills. Some of the teams had one developer and four journalists. That just didn’t work.
  • We found some teams didn’t need more than one or two journalists, even those with significant computer-assisted reporting skills. Some of the CAR veterans had a hard time translating their expertise in analyzing data to the idea of developing a reusable application.
  • To my surprise, many of the programmers were not really familiar with version control or git. Only Sunday morning, as the deadline loomed, did some teams ask about how to use Github, leaving me to run around and teach people. Some teams also didn’t have server space to host a demo site, something I assumed was a given. A suggestion from judge and mentor Jonathan Soo was to have us offer hosted server space for the teams and to require everyone to push an initial commit to Github within the first hour of hacking.
  • The teams with strong projects at the end either came with an idea or settled on one very quickly. We need a mechanism for teams to find members and for people to think about data and project ideas ahead of time. Some teams spent far too much time arguing over ideas or failed to really evaluate the data they were hoping to use. Suggestions were made for a pre-networking event a week before or a forum or email list for people to talk ahead of time.
  • I realized far too late that our website was good for displaying details on the event planning, but the blog was completely unusable. The commenting system didn’t work at all. Next time, we need to test that earlier or set up a functional blog at
  • Of our 11 projects, three teams didn’t finish enough to present anything beyond what they learned from not finishing. Another four teams had very rough demos, but had proofs of concept to show. So four teams finished pretty much functional projects.
  • If you want to build a strong community, the best way to start is by recruiting a broad coalition of journalists, developers, designers, hackers, educators, nonprofits and bureaucrats to help plan the event. Thanks in large part to Debbie Galant, we had more than 20 people on our organizing committee, and their ideas and dedication made this hackathon work.

All in all, I considered our first Hack Jersey event a success. And that leads us to think about what’s next. We have a few ideas:

  • An ongoing sponsorship from the New Jersey News Commons and the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.
  • A hack day aimed at scraping a poorly structured public dataset that could be hosted for all to use freely.
  • Programming training, perhaps through a partnership with other groups who have already invented that wheel.
  • Basic data reporting training, which many working journalists say they are hungry for.
  • Solicit ideas for newsroom tools from news organizations large and small. Take that list of use cases and host a hack day or series of hack days to build open source tools.

What do you think Hack Jersey should work on next? What would be most useful to you as a journalist? If you’re a developer, what kind of projects would you be interested in working on with us? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please share them in the comments, or email us at hackinfo(at)hackjersey(dot)com.