I tend to reflect upon my experience at the 2015 Smart Data Hack through an anthropological lens, both because of my academic background, and because of the degree of culture shock I encountered during the event.
One of the things I appreciate most about the University of Edinburgh is the number of opportunities afforded to students to participate in multi-disciplinary events. My best “lightbulb” moments have come from seeing an issue in new light thanks to the myriad of perspectives coming from a diversity of academic backgrounds. So although working in a multi-disciplinary group is not a new thing for me, the “hackathon” was totally different; I realized it was the only time on campus I had worked so closely with students not within the humanities or social sciences. And for five straight days. Given my paltry knowledge of computer terminology, there were times I understood less of what my teammates were saying than if I were in France, and my French is terrible (despite being Canadian). Not only was the language different, but the culture was foreign to me; I learned the hard way the unspoken rules and ethics of hackathons.
Having never attended a hackathon before, I didn’t have a clue as to how to commence. Our team had a white board and markers, so I did what any social science student would do: I wrote “Mission Statement” in block letters, waiting for input. The blank stares I received told me this was not common practice in hackathons, and the unresolved mission statement was quickly forgotten. Next, I asked how we might “win”. I learned my first lesson in hackathon etiquette when my team mates quickly made it clear that one does not “win” at hackathons, but rather come up with innovative ideas that are first and foremost fun, and maybe even useful. Off to a poor start, I resigned myself to Googling the computer etymology I was hearing around me. Words like “GUI” (pronounced ‘gooey’), “Java”, “Ruby”, “Python” (not a snake, but a program, apparently), and “API”.
Our team’s challenge was to find ways to “scrape data” (also had to Google that) relevant to pro-poor technology in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as present that data in a useful manner. I thought I had some good ideas for the project, but only on a conceptual basis, as I had no idea how to actually put those ideas into practice. Not only was I technologically limited, but I couldn’t seem to communicate my ideas to my team mates. Very few of the ideas I was able to eventually convey, apparently, were feasible, given the time restraints and limited access to APIs. Or, as my teammates pointed out, the technology hadn’t even been invented for what I was suggesting. It was as if I was a marine biologist offering advice to astronauts on how to build a space station, while speaking in a different language.
There were more than a few truly nerdy moments; Bloomberg cupcakes (which were delicious), inside jokes about Apple versus Microsoft, and several heated debates about which were better: cat memes or dog memes. But no one took themselves too seriously, which was refreshing after having spent a semester in the MSc ID programme. My teammates had a self-depreciating sense of humour; at one point, one of them jokingly typed “Computer Geeks” as our team name. Another thanked me for speaking in non-computer terms (after I repeatedly referred to items on the webpage as “thingys”), as this reminded him that not everyone was techno-fluent “in the real world”. Within each of the designated floors at Appleton Tower there was a genuine sense of comradery and excitement over finding new and innovative ways to meet the challenges. I was constantly reminded of the potential for out-of-the-box ideas coming from multi-disciplinary collaboration.
Regarding recommendations for future Smart Data Hack events, I would suggest having at least two non-informatics/computer science students on each team to make the event less harrowing for newcomers. I personally would have welcomed the solidarity and a shoulder to cry on as I read HTML For Dummies. As far as how to recruit a greater diversity of participants, the event could perhaps offer more sponsor-led challenges that appeal to issues relevant to other disciplines. Practical Action’s challenge, for example, appealed to me as an International Development student because of the socio-economic context (technology justice amongst the poor); although I was limited in my ability to assist in the data collection, I was able to contribute some contextual knowledge to the project because of my previous research on technology in Kenya. Lastly, while I appreciated the number of mentors available during the event, a suggestion for next year might be that mentors be debriefed beforehand on which participants had minimal computer experience. Or, such participants could wear big stickers that read, “Help Me, I’m Lost”.
Overall, I’m thankful I attended the Smart Data Hack event. Despite some incredibly frustrating moments, near the end of the week the culture shock began to wear off, and I eventually found my place within the team. I learned about different methods of data visualization, how to make a simple GUI layout, how to write basic HTML, and that informatics students can eat an astounding number of Oreos. I spent a great deal of time doing online research familiarizing myself with the data my teammates were trying to gather, as well as how the data would be most effectively displayed. Although most of this research went more towards personal education than to the project, after those five days I knew significantly more about innovative ways to analyse and present data than I did prior to the event. I’m well aware that a comprehensive understanding of technology goes a long way in the labour market, and I hope to continue developing this skill set for a more competitive edge. I’m also reading the Steve Jobs autobiography, so that maybe at the next hackathon I can make my own Apple jokes.