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Hackathon: Garage Lab in Buenos Aires

Submitted by on December 8, 2010 – 2:15 amNo Comment

Editor’s Note: Most posts on Información Cívica are first written in English and then translated into Spanish. This post is an exception for the moment, but also hopefully the start of a new trend — posts written by guest-bloggers in Spanish that are then translated into English for an international audience. In this post Lima-based Juan Arellano explains the growing trend of “Hackathons” in Latin America that aim to increase civic participation by developing tools and platforms that make government information more accessible. This post was first published in Spanish over a month ago and has been translated into English by LA-based Guatemalan, Marco Veliz. Since then Garage Lab in Buenos Aires has organized two more hackathon events. At a global level, the International Open Data Hackathon took place on December 4 with events in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and throughout Brazil. You can see the impressive list of projects that resulted from those events on the Open Data Day wiki.

If you are a regular reader of this and other, similar sites then you’re already familiar with the terms “open government” and “open data”, but how about the term “hackathon”? If you haven’t, then here’s your chance to become acquainted. According to the concept of open government, the issues of governance and public administration should be open to as many possible sectors as possible in order to attract greater citizen participation and more accountability. Similarly the philosophy of public information contents that the data produced by governments should be treated as open data, which means that they are made accessible to all without restrictions of copyright, patents, or other forms of control — it has certainly become a global movement.

There is no Spanish translation of the term Hackathon, and unsurprisingly the Wikipedia article – like so many – hasn’t been translated into other languages. Still, by reviewing the English article we see that it refers to an event which gathers programmers with the goal of collaboratively developing a tool (or tools) that previously did not exist. So how do we combine “open government,” “public data,” and “hackathon”? Leave that to the leaders of Garage Lab who organized the “Hackathon of Public Information and Open Government” last month at the University of San Andres in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In their original post, they explain with greater detail their objectives: “To aggregate efforts to publish public information, analyze and visualize it,” and to “unite complementary skills among developers, experts in visualization, political science and public administration professionals with the goal of designing solutions to problems of access to public information.”

The proposal is to equip teams with differing profiles to take on projects that use public data sources in order to demonstrate, for example, the purchases and expenses of a municipality or department, interpret the voting records of a legislative chamber, or find patterns of analysis in the meetings held by different functionaries.

Two teams of experts in the areas of web development statistical analysis, and visualization on the technology side, and public administration, political science, and social serveices, devoted themselves during two days of the Hackathon to improve transparency through access to information by focusing mainly on the areas of: 1) Analysis and visualization of public municipal purchases 2) Visualization of polls and political alliances in the house of representatives 3) Analysis and Visualization of meetings and issues of interest 4) Geolocation of Documents and Visualization of issues related to Cuenca Matanza Riachuelo. Also, some of the team members provided talks on their areas of expertise: Here is Manuel Aristaran about public purchases:

Manuel Aristarán en Hackathon Datos Públicos GarageLab from GarageLab on Vimeo.

The results were impressive, especially because of the convergence and productive interaction between the two teams of experts, under the general orientation of the organizers. This past November 5th, they officially presented the results of the hackathon at the Electronic Government Forum, in Buenos Aires, together with the people from the Citizen Power. Martin Onetto from Red Users describes the event, first focusing on the social sciences group:

Garage Lab’s idea, explains Dario Wainer, founder of the group together with Emiliano Kargiemanes, is to “work in the bridge between emergent problems and emergent technologies” to “reach the ability to generate knowledge in Argentina and further the capacity to generate wealth.”

Hackathon, (is a) neologism made up of words “hack” + “marathon”. “It’s ‘hacker’ as in the original meaning of the word; not someone who commits cyber crimes, but one who is capable of transforming something to solve a complex task” clarified the programmer Ernesto Mislej. “Quite possibly managers think of it as a crime, but this is why we talk about data already being public” added Aristaran.

It was two days of sharing knowledge to focus on the “collaborative paradigm” so emphasized in the technological world (and so little practiced in the political world). Frames, graphs, mappings, relationships and patterns or inferred nodes enriched with contextual information, multidirectional feeds; mixed with political theory such as Rational Choice and neo-institutionalism. Everything seems complex. However, the main objective is always to simplify and facilitate access to public data.

Onetto from Red Users goes on to describe some of the results from the hackathon:

The young programmer Manuel Aristaran from Bahía … presented the partial results of track 1: “Municipalities: tools of analysis and visualization of the public expenditure”. And he proposed greater transparency in the public arena. “The issue still lies in the problem of creating good incentives for government officials to release their public data.”

Aristaran is the founder of GPB (“Public Spending in Bahía”), an independent project that visualizes public spending by the municipality of Bahia Blanca. His intention is that these types of platforms spread. He does not hide his techniques and readily shares his tools: “the applications that I used are: Python, the Django Project, and Postgresql. And the data extraction system, which you’ve heard me mention so much, is Scrapy.” During the hackathon, Aristaran discussed the model with his colleague “Gera” and, with help from others, they applied it to the spending records of municipalities General Pueyrredon and of Morón.

The second topic was: “Geolocation of documents and traceability/mapping of public expenses”, tied to data related to the contamination of the Riachuelo river. Architect Pio Torroja, coordinator of the track, explained: “the prototype that we are developing would enable: 1) a structure to spreadinformation and quickly access it, 2) multiple levels of users (officials and social organizers), 3) the geolocation of documents on a map that acts as a landscape of documents from Cuenca, and 4) a format proposal for the future incorporation of information to form an integrated system.” Each one of these points answers requirements from Luis Armella, the judge from Quilmes, that heads the movement.

Onetto’s post concludes with an anecdote that took place when one of the organizers of the hackathon tweeted partial results, A response on Twitter claimed that “a sub-secretary from the province of Buenos Aires says that these data are not public.” The tweet was read aloud to the room and immediately somebody answered, “tell him that he should publish the data then.” That’s the spirit of a hackathon of public data.

Of course, those types of initiatives are present at the global level. As an example we have the “International Open Data Hackathon” that proposes to unify programmers to develop applications with public data, and to support the adoption of open data policies at the local, regional and national level all over the world. This activity is organized by the Open Data Day and it will take place on December 4th concurrently in various cities in the world. As a matter of fact anyone can join and bring forth the realization of a hackathon in their own city. I see few Latin American cities, only a few from Brasil and it would be interesting to spark the idea in our own countries.

The folks from Office of Free Software from the University of Granada, Spain organized a hackathon at the start of this year to “acquaint the student community with the different projects participating in the University of Free Software Contest, and to also provided the opportunity to participate and thus learn different developing technologies in each project.” They also posted their tips of how to organize a hackathon, here are some of them:

  • First, communicate. It is clear that the more communication you have, the better. Especially communicate with people from outside the usual circle.
  • Hackathons are not only for programmers. In this one, it has been a very interesting experience to have three translators on hand […] that have translated everything needed (blogs, presentations, documentation, interface) to three different languages and have helped the participants to prepare their own programs so that they be multilingual. At the same time, you can benefit from supporters from almost any sector: architects, arts, administration, even biology or psychology; each can provide their own experience to the project.
  • Find a way to include everyone: have three or four volunteers that go to the projects where fewer people have signed up. Do it yourself if necessary.
  • For those that carry out each project, understand what you want to do from the beginning (more than what you want others to do). If you don’t have clear tasks, a review of the code, re-factorization, documentation, proofs, installation and documentation… there are dozens of tasks that you can offer, for which you don’t need specific technical qualifications.
  • An attendance of around 5 people per project is ideal; more than that and the groups are too big. Make room for everyone and for all the time. It’s ok if they go home at the end of week, but it is better if at least you provide a common space with connectivity where they can carry out in their tasks in common.
  • Try to identify the geeks, those that are part of organizations, those that coordinate every project, and any person that can help in a determined moment. A simple black is sufficient to identify helpers.
  • All the projects should have well-organized collaborative tools to plan the projects. This includes wikis, mailing lists, etc. Try them before-hand, so that you don’t find that they don’t work, as happened in our case.
  • Decide on a Twitter tag before hand so that everyone can find resources and maintain conversation.

If anyone can provide us information over past and future hackathons in Latin America we would appreciate if you leave comments on this post. We would like to make a schedule of these and promote the further realization of these events in our countries.

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