Hacks/Hackers Expands


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of hackNY.

In 2006, Julian Assange released a massive amount of US government data on the website WikiLeaks. Journalists from publications like The New York Times and The Guardian were then tasked with combing through all the information at a fast rate. This instance is an example of the intersection of technology and storytelling known as “data journalism.”

Today, the specialty continues to gain prominence as a progressive attempt to enhance reporting pro bono. There are numerous organizations now established that tie together literary minds with tech-savvy engineers to build a community of shared ideas.

Hacks/Hackers is one of these grassroots organizations that began as a casual gathering on meetup.com but has since spurred into a global network. The group claims to unite two forms of hackers: journalists mining an untold narrative and technologists drastically disturbing traditional structures.

Jeanne Brooks, the executive director of Hacks/Hackers, spoke with BTR about the organization’s expansion to over 80 different communities around the world and the collaborative work to enrich the masses with digestible data.

“This is really kind of a movement that was seeded about five years ago and born from the idea of gathering journalists and technologists to discuss strategies and share information and ideas around the future of news,” explains Brooks, who is the first-ever executive director of the international organization.

The organization began in a bar in San Francisco and has since multiplied and spread across four continents. All members bring their own unique interpretation of these strategies, according to Brooks.

Brooks joined at the end of last year through a fellowship with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Her career in journalism branched out of her work in investigative reporting under the producer Charles Lewis. Lewis is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization featuring in-depth reporting and investigation.

“It was such a wonderful introduction to the world of journalism to work under Chuck Lewis and it happened to also be at a very exciting time when technology was really disrupting the field,” reflects Brooks.

A self-described lover-of-technology, Brooks saw data as an increasingly important and pertinent piece to the growing puzzle of how to deliver news. As she witnessed professional careers shifting to incorporate the relevance of data she realized big data wasn’t going anywhere.

“You can even see it in the rise of audience development professionals and masters of social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York,” indicates Brooks. “You can see that it is legitimizing the data focus in some of the socially based strategies that we are using in journalism.”

To employ this statistical focus, the organization gathers volunteers for conferences or workshops and hosts hackathons, events where computer programmers, software developers, and journalists collaborate for educational or civic purposes.

The New York chapter of Hacks/Hackers, where Brooks is based, assembled a “Civic Data Hackathon” in conjunction with New York Public Library Labs to transform the city’s public records and websites into more transparent, accessible interfaces. While hackers were transferring layers of figures from PDF files, journalists were carefully transforming numbers into the shape of an article.

“I think that the community is really learning different ways of how people learn how to leverage data and technology for journalism,” describes Brooks. “One way is to develop a story arch or a tinker space and so you see hackathons as one method that the community is using to provide a creative space for people to explore and tinker.”

The main focus of Hacks/Hackers is the local neighborhoods in which they can have a direct impact. The movement intends to nurture the communities of its stationed chapters to encourage growth in the way individuals interact with their governments, information, and news.

Since the current network is naturally taking off in an expansive manner, the concern for Brooks is deepening the connection of the organization across the globe while still telling the story of local communities.

“As I have been interviewing a lot of the leaders and members from around the world, I hear frequently that people are just really excited to be part of a global network and that they are really excited for the potential for us to build deeper lines of communication,” says Brooks. “There is really [exciting] stuff that’s happening all over the world but it’s difficult to stay on top of ever-changing advancements.”

Hacks/Hackers is neutral territory that hopes to be a common space for diverse groups of hackers without the bias or partisanship of government association. Brooks explains that there is a lot of overlap in the needs and strategies of these teams of people; Hacks/Hackers is where they are building the tools to actualize those needs in reality.

Brooks proposes, “I think that our vision is that there will continue to be diverse groups of people who come to the conversation and, in the spaces that the Hacks/Hackers communities create, [and it will seep] into all different levels of socially based journalism.”