What I learnt from my first hackathon

journalists and developers working together

The Interhacktives team busy working on their idea at Build the News

Photo credit: MattieTK/Flickr 

Well, officially it wasn’t a hackathon but, as a journalist and not a developer, Build the News – a two-day event for student journalists and web developers to team up and compete in the production of a digital journalism project – was as close to one as I’d got.

Known as events where computer programmers and others involved in software development collaborate to produce projects in a short and intense period of time, hackathons (or hackdays) where journalists and coders work in tandem offer great potential for the future of digital newsrooms.

Since September I’ve become a big fan big fan of Hacks/Hackers meet ups here in London, but there is a fundamental difference between listening to others speak about about something they’ve done or built (however helpful and eye-opening it can be) and actually attempting to build it yourself with them.

Build the News, which was organised by The Times digital development team this weekend, was a great experience, facilitating for some brilliant innovative ideas and projects, as well as plenty of fun.

I thought I’d write a few brief observations from the weekend while it was still fresh in my mind, so as a result I apologise beforehand in case this post turns out a little incoherent, it’s been a long week. These are things I’ve learnt from Build the News to apply for future journalism work and projects, not necessarily lessons for future hackathons.

1) Make friends with developers

By far the most important lesson. Talk to them, sit with them, listen to them talk about how they’ve done something – even though you may spend the next few hours trying to understand exactly what they said. In order to understand what is and is not possible to do online, this is step one. Learn about APIs and what they do, ask what  GitHub is and how it works (still trying to figure both those two questions out myself), try to find out as much about the different programming language and generally make a real effort to keep up instead of  switching off, as you may naturally be inclined to do. I am still struggling with this, but the only real option is to learn through interaction. This is certainly no easy process, but one true digital journalists cannot afford to ignore.

2) Open source your work as a journalist

Journalists are traditionally fiercely protective of the process behind their work and given the nature of the industry, often with good reason. The developer community generally takes a very different approach to this and is certainly one we could learn from. Publicly opening up the thinking behind your work, as well as the process involved in the developing phase of your idea, generally gives you a different perspective of what you are doing, as well as generating interest as well as potential for feedback. Halfway through the event our group, which consisted of few students from City University’s Interactive Journalism MA, belatedly set up a tumblr blog to detail our experience, thoughts, ideas, and overall progression of our project. This turned out to be extremely helpful to us in terms of understanding our own idea better by communicating it, as well as encouraging interaction. Obviously opening up your work process in journalism is not always applicable, but whenever possible the more you do it, the more you and others can potentially learn and improve.

screenshot from interhacktives build the news tumblr

3) Be nosy

People – and especially tech savvy journalists and programmers – all use technology in different ways. Staring at someone’s screen while they are working may seem bad etiquette, but it can offer an insight into a new world. Whether it’s a programme, an app, a browser extension or even something as minor as a keyboard shortcut, you can learn a new way of doing something online, improve how you use a particular programme or save time from the mundane tasks you run on your device. Look at how others work and don’t be afraid to ask what they are doing and how they did that when they talk about, or show you, their work. I feel the need to clarify – always within reason.

I’m sure there could be many more points I could make here, but I’ll stop here and hope to write an updated post once I’ve been to a few more similar events.