This weekend I participated in the first hackathon installment of the Summer of Smart here in SF. What a pleasure, such a high concentration of curious, brilliant people with backgrounds from designers & developers to artists, activists, videographers, journalists & local government folks. We kicked off on friday night with introductions and brainstorming project ideas—let me tell you it was hard to choose.
I joined a team with the focus on gathering neighborhood stories through video interviews. We produced a slick (if I may say so myself) demo site over the course of a day: two teammates rode the MUNI #24 and approached people on the street inquiring about their relationship with particular neighborhoods and really turned up some gems. I stayed at the hackspace and coded a map to organize the video clips & tell the story. See our project, “Between the Stops,” and all the others at summerofsmart.org/projects.
What I learned
Video is powerful. It just is. If you’re collecting communities’ stories and feelings about their neighborhoods, you lose a lot of expressive power by using text or even photos. I spent the day in code-land while Milicent and Jeremy roamed the city filming and had no idea what they’d come back with. It was only on stage demoing that I saw the interviews. Here’s one from the Bayview neighborhood.
Scale by curation and entrusting content to a small network. We don’t necessarily have the time & resources to travel the city & build an awesome collection of interviews. But it would make sense to approach non-profits, schools and churches, teach them how to operate a camcorder & upload videos, and have them film community members. Especially kids and underrepresented people who might have something surprising and moving to tell us.
Have a viewpoint. I didn’t want this to become “YouTube on a map” by opening it up entirely to the public. First discussions on Friday night had a crowdsourced “anyone can upload thoughts about their hood” notion. But that’s been done before, and never very remarkably I felt. Once I proposed we arrange videos along MUNI lines and tell the story of “travelling along the surface of a city oblivious to what’s just a block away” the team really crystallized around the idea and we knew we had something. We wanted a line that passed through a diversity of neighborhoods, like the 38 or 24. It helped to hang the content pieces and story on the linear structure.
Multidisciplinary teams rule. I did the programming and web design; we had a street team with interview experience, a UX guy, writer, and video editor. We worked in parallel and gathered for the last few hours to weave the pieces together. The event organizers went out of their way to encourage a “hackathon for everyone” atmosphere.
Dots are so passe. I’ve long had this opinion. Placing markers on a google map is easy and often useful but often lacks a focus or good design sense to lead viewers through a story. Living in the Map (our Detroit-based social property tool) uses a parcel-polygon base layer and it feels.. different. Organized spaces rather than a scattering of point markers. I wanted to organize Between the Stops along a chunky transit-map style line.
Don’t make me work to hear your story. In designing the page I wanted viewers to have the option of starting a video and just keep playing through to the end (instead of searching for dots and clicking them). A possible direction for the mobile experience is to weave together an audio or video “podcast” on the fly from nearby interviews. People do listen to these things while riding the bus after all.
Everyone loves public art. Several weekend projects centered on streamlining resource sharing for public urban art. Say a building owner has a blank wall or an empty storefront. Why not hook up with artists who could use the exposure and chance to spread beautiful work? Everyone wins. This morning on my tweetstream a message from @DetroitLIVES rolled by: “Sketch is done. Funding secured. This mural needs a home! Let’s hear your ideas for a wall to put this on, Detroit http://twitpic.com/5hqu0p” Appropriate. I mentioned this to Jerry and he pointed out that LOVELAND funded that same mural through our micro-grants. Even more appropriate. So yes, there’s a need for some kind of “dating service” for art/space exchange.
Yay Taxes. I almost joined the YAY TAXES project team because of our LoveTax experiment. Based on discussions at CityCamp and at the hackathon, and seeing this idea sprouting up repeatedly, we think there’s promise in the idea of a participatory, voluntary tax system. The team had a very different approach to the problem and we’re still refining our model and figuring out how to make this compelling. Yay.