When I was in Ireland, I vowed that when I next was staying in a place for an extended period, I'd go to some jam sessions. So, when, shortly after my return, Stecla invited me to join her going to one, I was completely on board with the idea.
Sadly, though, the person leading the jam was too fond of his own voice and kept talking and talking rather than playing. The information density is too low for me, I've come to learn and play, but this is just a waste of time!
One good thing does come of it, though: Stecla mentions she's thinking of flying to New Orleans.
“But you could drive…,” I say. And thus an idea was born.
A few months later, the time has come.
But we can't get going at a reasonable hour, because there's a Hackathon, and I have been wanting to go to one of these for a long time.
A Hackathon's an event where programmers, designers, artists, dreamers, and people who need problems solved get together and basically sprint towards solutions. This—Visualizing Neighborhoods, A Hackathon for Good—is slated to begin at 9AM at the library.
I get out of the house late, because I am surrounded by a nebula of things I'll want in New Orleans (backpack, climbing rope, pillow) and because I needed a good breakfast. The bus pulls up in front of the library and I run inside. There are a bunch of people standing around inside waiting for the library to open. My event's on the second floor, though, and it's already begun. I run to the escalator, which is turned off with some kind of sign in front of it that I figure indicates people shouldn't go up it until the library is open open.
I vault the side of the escalator and run up it. At the top someone's ready and waiting with my registration and a handy moleskin notebook. She points at a nearby door way, “They're just starting.”
That's when the police catch up with me.
“You ran up the escalator! You can't do that.”
“I did do that. I need to be here.”
“The escalator's broken, it could have hurt you and we'd be liable.”
“The escalator's inert, it's unlikely to have hurt me. Your sign should have indicated an alternative route up. And I don't sue people for my own stupidity, so that's unlikely too.”
There's a moment in which we both pause, wondering what's going to happen. And then, having established a kind of mutual codominance, we both back away from the confrontation… like bears.
A Hackathon begins with people pitching ideas for projects or pitching problems they hope others will want to solve. Each person gets three minutes to talk and fields two questions. Some ideas are well-defined, other pitches leave the audience so confused that no one can think of a clarifying question. At the end, they open up the floor for anyone who wasn't on the agenda to present ideas. I bound up to the stage.
“I like to roam the streets of Minneapolis in the dark of the night, where no one can hear me scream. I feel this city is safe, but not everyone would agree with me. Over there, just through those windows, are large immigrant populations. Over 30,000 people who form a kind of cultural and racial island just next to the university campus. When I went to school there, that part of town was considered dangerous by the students I knew. Those housing units were referred to as the “Crack Stacks”. But I don't think these fears were well-founded. It's often the case that our perception of reality is biased by our prejudices and fears, and that these prejudices and fears persist because we lack objective information about our world.”
“The City of Minneapolis Police Department has a website where you can view crime information. Every week, they upload a number of PDFs—one for each precinct—showing a crappy map with little icons representing the approximate location of crimes, as well as a few tables aggregating the information. But there are better ways of making that data available! Rather than having to dig through dozens of files, a user should be able to view all of this data interactively.”
“The City of Minneapolis has just released, for the first time, a database of when and where crimes have been committed. It has over 300,000 entries. I propose that we break the data out of this database and reorganize it in a way which is easy for the public to parse. I envision an interactive map which lets me view crime over time broken down by areas of interest to me, not based on the arbitrary boundaries of ‘neighbourhoods’. I envision that the data can be binned by season, time of day, or type of crime. I hope that if we build this, we can inform people about how the world really is, so they can approach it not in fear, but in understanding.”
Afterwards we all walk out in to the atrium. Those of us who pitched ideas are holding signs and everyone else is milling around talking with sign-holders deciding which group or group(s) to through their energies into.
I end up with three non-technical team members (designers and thinkers), and an apps guy. Luckily, he has a pretty good understanding of CartoDB and Leaflet, so we're able to get off the ground quickly. A few hours later, our site is mostly functional, but many of the features I'd have liked to be working on are getting stymied because CartoDB is somewhat restrictive on the size of the database they'll let you have (unless you can pay) and because one of the Leaflet plugins we are trying to use keeps failing, and we can't find the problem.
Still, a working prototype's not bad!
Throughout the day, food, soda, fruit, and candy have been appearing on a table and coming directly to us via the volunteer staffers for the event. We are engines for turning carbohydrates and ideas into realities.
At the end of the day, we present our works, and, right afterwards, I run out the door, down a (different) escalator, and right into Brian. When Stecla and I decided to go to New Orleans, I put up some adverts searching for riders and, mere hours later, Brian had responded that he'd like to go.
We shake hands. His hands are larger than mine, and strong. He's also taller than me. Ridiculous. A moment later, Steph pulls up with a car, we pile in, and head off towards New Orleans.