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Hacks/Hackers Brighton: Open communities

September’s meet-up of Hacks/Hackers Brighton heard from user-experience designer and developer Aral Balkan, who led a discussion on identity, privacy and, and Joanna Geary, digital development editor at the Guardian, who proposed five questions journalists should ask when thinking about online communities.

Adam Tinworth’s liveblog of Aral Balkan’s talk is here, and his report on Joanna Geary’s presentation is here. All photos are by Adam Tinworth.

The meet-up was part of the Brighton Digital Festival, a month-long celebration of digital culture, and to participate further in the festival Hacks/Hackers Brighton ran a pop-up digital newsroom at the Mini Maker Faire.

Identity, privacy and

Aral Balkan talked about how a lot of free platforms depend on gathering data from their users in order to make them sustainable through advertising.

Balkan observed that the model of many web 2.0 companies, including social networks and web apps, has been to:

1. Gather as many users as possible and then approach venture capitalists to get them to lend money based on the number of users

2. ?????

3. Profit

And it’s the second step of “?????” where the model falls down, Balkan said. This is the stage where web entrepreneurs find they need to attract advertising to bring in revenue.

Users think they are getting to use a platform or service for free, but they give away their data in return.

Free is a lie. And the cost of your personal information? Your privacy.

Balkan talked about Google, Kindle Fire and Facebook before going on to talk about Twitter’s path.

The tools of  Twitter were invented by the users: @mentions, @replies and #hashtags, were all created by the early adopters. And developers built great things.

He talked through the process of the restrictions to the Twitter API and went through a list of third-party clients that could be affected.

And then he introduced, a Twitter-like platform and service. (For more on see this journalist’s guide.) is the result of “an audacious proposal” by developer and entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell. It promises to remain ad-free and open and in order to do this – and avoid the “????” step described above when a free-to-use platform must find a way of bringing in revenue – charges $50 a year for membership.

Balkan said Facebook and Twitter are targeting the same audience as McDonalds.

It’s the McDonaldsification of social media. But it’s good that we have alternatives to McDonalds as not all of us want to eat there.

An alternative to Twitter is, which users must pay to use. But it is worth paying, Balkan implied as he asked:

Is your identity, privacy and security worth $4 a month? That’s £2.50 – which is less than the price of a pint of beer.

That online community stuff … it’s all sortied now, right?

Joanna Geary, who is leading the Guardian’s digital-first strategy (and who also runs Hacks/Hackers London), proposed five questions to ask your editor – and maybe yourself – before starting any online community project.

1. Why are you doing it?

When at The Times, Geary received an email response to an idea she had proposed which stated: “Common practice is a factor we should consider…”

This suggests journalists should only try something if others are doing it first and then blindly follow. Would you put your head in an oven if others went there first? Geary asked.

There are far better reasons for launching a new project or starting a new initiative, she said. She urged journalists and community managers to ask: does it improve your journalism? Does it increase traffic from social? Does it get people spending more time on your site? Does it improve customer relationships? Does it help you get customer data?

2. How are you measuring that?

Geary’s next tip is to gather some metrics. The Guardian has been developing its own proxy metrics system during the past couple of months. Gather qualitative data and feedback and make sure you know the strengths and weaknesses, Geary urged.

3. Are you paying attention to the results?

Geary also said news organisations should experiment, keeping a close eye on the results.

4. Are you sharing what works?

Members of the Guardian’s communities team will give ‘stand up’ presentations in the morning news conference, they hold lunchtime talks once a month, there is formal training for journalists, they send daily and weekly emails of good examples, and the Guardian is soon to launch ‘community clinics’.

The idea for community clinics comes out of the tradition of ‘social media surgeries’ held in in Birmingham. “People who have learned something share that skill and pass it on,” Geary explained.

The Guardian’s approach will be to “bring all of the community team to a very visual place in the Guardian – the canteen – once a week and people can pop over and ask questions.”

Initially community clinics will be for Guardian journalists and staff, but Geary hopes they will “bring that out of the Guardian and include readers as well”.

5. Are you supporting them once they get the message?

Geary said that there’s a need to constantly repeat and reinforce the messages and lessons.

You need to repeat as people forget and new people come in.

Pop-up digital newsroom

Following the discussions on open communities and open journalism, members of Hacks/Hackers Brighton spent the weekend news gathering and sharing their skills.

Hacks/Hackers Brighton became ‘makers’ at the Mini Maker Faire, a show-and-tell attended by 7,000 people that saw inventors giving demos of their creations and encouraging others to get involved.

Hacks/Hackers Brighton teamed up with Brighton & Hove Community Reporters, a group set up to promote cohesion by sharing stories and encouraging links between people from different parts of the community, and ran demos to get the community reporters and people who came along to the Maker Faire ‘making’.

During the course of the day skills were swapped, blogs were created and stories were gathered and shared via a Tumblr.

The next meet-up of Hacks/Hackers Brighton is on 2 October.

Kickstarter’s ‘most successful journalism project’ and ‘taking on the unseen snoopers’ | Hacks/Hackers Brighton

Hacks/Hackers Brighton met on Tuesday evening (3 July) and heard from two fascinating speakers. You can find full details of the talks as liveblogged by Adam Tinworth on “One man and his blog”. Here is a summary that is cross-posted from

Bobbie Johnson talked about Matter, a digital project dedicated to in-depth science and technology journalism.

Matter — due to launch in September — is the brainchild of Johnson, European editor at technology site GigaOM and previously technology correspondent at the Guardian, and co-founder Jim Giles, a US freelance reporter who has written for titles including the Economist and New Scientist. The two raised $50,000 in 38 hours by crowdfunding on Kickstarter and raised a total of  $140,000 from Kickstarter 2,500 backers.

Each feature will be an in-depth piece of long-form journalism focusing on science and technology. Readers will be charged $0.99 to read each article.

Each story as an individual publication, it’s a small book. It isn’t a magazine, it isn’t a website, it’s Matter.

The aim is to publish roughly one article per week with the team working on the basis that “less is more”.

Johnson said that Matter will “look beautiful” and also “work across many difference devices”, from an iPad and phone to Kindle and desktop.

He said he expects the articles to be picked up by other publications.

We are writing stories that are interesting enough that other people will want to write about them.

Matter has been posting project updates on their blog.

The second talk was by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell.

Part of the talk was a “call to action” to highlight the “obscurely worded” Communications Data Bill, launched by the British government last month which is “intended to place every kind of internet communication and web access under official scrutiny”, according to Campbell.

Campbell has spent nearly 40 years reporting on secret national and global structures of electronic surveillance.

He told Hacks/Hackers Brighton how he had been followed by intelligence agencies, had his house raided, and was arrested in the course of his career.

As referred to in the talk liveblog:

Forty years ago GCHQ in Cheltenham was an absolute secret. When (Campbell) proposed a feature to Time Out, he phoned up GCHQ, and amazed the receptionist by the sheer fact of knowing it.

In 1976, he published the first article describing the now well-known signals intelligence activities carried out by GCHQ Cheltenham. Two American journalists were deported while Campbell and another journalist were arrested.

The following year Campbell faced trial at the Old Bailey and up to 30 years imprisonment, “prosecuted on charges laid under the Official Secrets Act”, according to the book The Justice Game.

In the mid-1980s Campbell went to work for the BBC, and started a series called “Secret Society” and worked on a story about the first government spy satellite, Zircon.

The show was banned, but the story was reported in a magazine. The office of the magazine, Campbell’s house, and the BBC’s Scotland office were raided, Campbell told the meetup.

In 1988, Campbell revealed the existence of the Echelon network of commercial satellite monitoring stations, and the “dictionary” system for storing and analysing intercepted private messages. In 2000, he prepared a series of reports on Echelon for the European Parliament.

Since then, Campbell told the meetup, he has worked as an accredited computer forensic expert, and has audited and examined thousands of call records, call recordings and location data files used in criminal cases, as well as dozens of computers seized from terrorism suspects.

It is well worth reading the liveblog of Campbell’s talk to see more on changes to privacy laws, some of which he said came after but “were not triggered” by the terrorist attacks in the US.

A Hacks/Hackers overview with Chrys Wu and a chat with Knight-Mozilla fellow Laurian Gridinoc at Hacks/Hackers Brighton

Hacks/Hackers global coordinator and New York co-organiser Chrys Wu (@MacDiva on Twitter) spent an evening with Hacks/Hackers Brighton on Tuesday, 22 November to report on what chapters around the world have been doing.

She explained Hacks/Hackers started just 18 months ago, with an idea originating in mid-2009.

“Developers and journalists really do need each other,” Wu said, explaining how a variety of social meetups, talks, demo days and hackathons are the basis for the Hacks/Hackers community.

The groups work to “improve the practice of journalism through tools and technologies”.

She explained that there are now many chapters around the world, including about 20 in Africa, with one launching in Cairo soon.

A group has also started in Yerevan, Armenia, and has announced a hackathon with help from Microsoft.

And because “talking is good; making is better,” developers and journalists spend hack days together, such as at Hacks/Hackers Hacking, an event which took place at ONA11, the Online News Association conference held in Boston in September.

The ONA11 hack day included a project where a team of about 10 hacks and hackers who took up a challenge to help NPR’s Andy Carvin work out how to visualise data from around 85,000 tweets.

A journalist from La Nacion in Argentina also tasked a group with developing a way to process data from PDFs in order to better understand gas prices in the country.

Chrys, a coder as well as a journalist, has spent time at The Los Angeles Times, where she worked on the Pulitzer prize-winning series, Altered Oceans; CBS and The Washington Post, having been recruited to help develop content distribution strategy.

She works with Hacks/Hackers chapters worldwide to help them launch and sustain local communities interested in journalism and technology.

Developer Laurian Gridinoc (@gridinoc on Twitter) is one of the first five winners of a Knight-Mozilla fellowship and will spend 10 months embedded within the BBC newsroom to generate ideas, train colleagues and bridge the gap between technology and the news.

Laurian told Hacks/Hackers Brighton about the proposal that resulted in him securing a funded placement and discussed the types of projects he will be working on.

He said there were around 300 ideas submitted, with 60 getting through to the first round. Twenty projects were invited to attend a learning lab in Berlin, and 11 finalists presented to news partners. Just five were selected to become Knight-Mozilla fellows, with one each at the BBC, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, Zeit Online and the Boston Globe.

Each news organisation had different aims and selected a hack/hacker with skills and ambitions that matched their plans.

Gridinoc, who proposed a collaborative storyboarding tool, will be “trying to enhance storytelling”, particularly in online video.

He will be addressing problems with Adobe Flash and will expanding possibilities by constantly asking the question “what if”: “What if there weren’t the constraints of time? What if there weren’t any constrains on platforms?” he said.

He will then use open source assets to create his own code, templates and prototypes, spending a maximum of two weeks on a project.

Laurian Gridinoc demonstrates Tangle.js at Hacks/Hackers BrightonLaurian hinted the kind of interactives he might produce at the BBC, demonstrating Tangle.js, a JavaScript library that provides provides a simple API for “tangling up” the values in a document, allowing the reader to explore a document by changing the values using a slider and seeing the resulting values change. (See this Tangle template demonstration).

Laurian also shared his interesting career path. While studying medicine he co-founded a brand strategy and interactive consultancy in Romania. He then followed his interest in the semantic web through a masters in computational linguistics and research into semantic navigation at Knowledge Media Institute (Open University). For the past year he has been based in Birmingham, implementing applications using semantic web technologies at the technology innovation company Talis.

  • Hacks/Hackers Brighton is organised by, a news and jobs site for journalists. To learn about future Hacks/Hackers Brighton events, join the Meetup page and follow @HacksHackersBTN on Twitter.
  • Hacks/Hackers Brighton launches Sept. 8

    A new chapter of Hacks/Hackers is launching in Brighton, a city on the south coast of the UK, home to a wealth of developer and journalistic talent.

    Hacks/Hackers Brighton will kick off with a meetup from 3.30-5.30pm on Thursday 8 September in the Brighton Dome.

    The event will be part of the Brighton Digital Festival, a month-long celebration of digital culture, and is organised by industry news and jobs site, which has full details of the launch meetup here.

    There will be talks and demos from both hacks and hackers, and ideas will be shaped by those who sign up to attend.

    Suggestions so far (less than an hour after announcing the event) include mapping and visualising large geo-data sets, using APIs for journalism, and a demo of a Brighton-built Android news app.

    You can make suggestions, sign up to say you are attending, offer to demo or speak, or put yourself forward to become an active volunteer at the Hacks/Hackers Brighton meetup group.

    There will be networking drinks in the Brighton Dome bar after the event, when we will start to talk about the next meetup.

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