What we learned from two news hackathons

Racing the clock in a hackathon format changed the game for a team from The West Australian. Ben Martin shares the experience of the team, which included head developer Joe Hardy and designer Sophia Lewis.

Part one: Sydney

Yes, there was all the helter-skelter coding, all the ideas (some brilliant, some nutty) and all the single-origin you could drink without your heart exploding.

But the key moment of Australia’s first Editors Lab hackathon occurred about five minutes before we were due to pitch.

Nic Hopkins, a journalist who now works for Google, was wandering between teams giving last minute advice. The theme for the event, held at Macleay College in Sydney in March, was using data to tell stories. He asked us to test our team’s pitch in front of him.

I delivered my well-rehearsed, smooth spiel.

We’ve built a thing that can do this. And this. And this. And this.

“That’s three ideas,” Nic said. “Just give me the best one.”

“If you try to explain three ideas like that you won’t get your point across. You only have four minutes to pitch. Show me the problem you are trying to solve. Show me the solution. Give me the before and the after.”

And there, in Nic’s short piece of advice, lay the key to winning: Simplicity.

Take a problem and solve it. Don’t try to make it all things to all people. Just solve that problem as well as you can.

Explaining the key to clever innovation at the Editors Lab hackathon.

Luke Bacon of OpenAustralia Foundation’s key to hacking well and usefully: Narrow your focus.

Over the next five minutes, I rewrote the pitch, butchering it down to its barest bones. If we were on a reality TV cooking show, a large man with questionable neckwear would have applauded us for “letting the produce sing”.

Here’s our pitch a sentence: Beat is a newsroom tool which allows journalists to see where police incidents are taking place, determine their newsworthiness, and find the most efficient way to respond.

So how did we do it?

West Australia Police send a live feed of police incidents to Perth newsrooms on a secure link. It’s there for our judicious and discreet use to help us keep the public informed about what’s going on in their state.

The information is delivered several columns of numbers. Police codes for each type of event (338 for Sudden Death, 339 for Suspicious Person, 302 for Burglary) stream in alongside street addresses, the time, and incident numbers. They come thick and fast, one for almost every police incident in the state.

It’s a lot to keep track of. Too much. Especially when so much of it is not necessarily newsworthy.

So our team created a program which interpreted the data and delivered it in an easy-to-read dashboard.

In the back end, we applied newsworthiness values to each police code. Then colours were applied at the front end so users could easily determine whether an incident was worth investigating. They then took location data and mapped each event.

So, instead of watching that mind-numbing stream of numbers, we could see events, colour-coded and sorted by news value, as they occurred on a map.

We then created a “Team” layer over the top of the map which showed where our staff and physical assets were. This was done in dummy form for the purposes of our pitch.

The intention was for the chief of staff to be able to determine who was closest and most appropriate to attend a police incident. No more multiple phone calls to camera crews or photographers trying to work out who is closest.

That’s Beat. Nothing more, nothing less. A simple idea to make life easier in the newsroom.

Beat (see the prototype) won the Editors Lab event and the rather generous prize was a trip to Austria to compete against winning teams from around the world at the Global Editors Network Summit in June.

And so we were off to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, complete with historic charm and doormat-sized schnitzels. Oh, Vienna!

Part two: Vienna

The theme for the international Editors Lab competition was Newsgaming: creating a sense of emotion and urgency in players to connect them with the news in an emphatic and memorable way.

The benefits to a news organisation in gamifying news are clear, but it’s a relatively rare medium for news storytelling.

Games can increase engagement because the audience actively participates rather than just consumes the news. Games are entertaining, so increase the possibility that a user might share the experience, thus growing the audience. And games allow a user to get a more in-depth experience of an issue in a shorter time than they would had they spent that time simply reading a story.

As we brainstormed news ideas, we discussed gun crime at length.

Could we compare the history of gun crime in the US and in Australia by building a game in which a player built political capital by showing an understanding of the gun control issue? They could then spend that capital by changing US gun laws to save lives.

But in the shadows of the Orlando massacre, which had occurred just three days earlier, the concept of making a game out of such a tragic issue was problematic.

We settled on a news topic with a deliberately Australian flavour.

Lifesaver! was a beach safety game in which a player became a lifesaver for the day. It was part news story, relaying the fact that 102 people drowned off Australian beaches last year and another 12,690 were rescued by lifesavers, and part community service information.

We chose a design aesthetic which invoked the classic, pixeled, 8-bit games of the past. Sophia created a little lifesaver character, complete with red-and-yellow-quartered cap, plus a few swimmers, including one which created a splash to denote he might be drowning.

The object of the game was to drag the lifesaver to the drowning swimmer to rescue them. The swimmers and drowners would appear at random during the one-minute period of the game. Sophia also created a shark which appeared some time during that minute and the lifesaver had to sound the shark alarm to warn swimmers.

The object of the game was to rescue as many swimmers as possible in the minute. At the end of the minute, players were given their score, plus newsworthy statistics about the risks of drowning. They were also given links to swimming schools, beach safety tips, and information about the risk of shark attacks.

Despite our change of topic, we managed to create a game that worked. That is, you could play it and it was fun. To me (someone who doesn’t know how to code or design) this was remarkable.

The Seven West Media team created a retro-style game with a message on surf safety.

The Seven West Media team created a retro-style game with a message on surf safety.

The top prize went to the Indonesian team from Tempo whose game centred on the forest fires that cast a dark pall over their nation’s environmental record. It was interesting and well-executed in the short time available. Other games examined the refugee crisis, political instability in Eastern Europe and transgender rights. All conceived and created in less than 48 hours.

The Editors Lab demonstrated that when you block everything else out, concentrate on a series of discrete tasks in a very structured and deliberate manner, you can achieve a lot in a very short time.

This method of working is not, of course, the norm for many journalists. We tend to drift towards and between stories, chasing, interviewing, eliciting information and agonising over wording. How long does that take? Well, it takes as long as it takes … until there’s a deadline.

The Editors Lab forced us to break a problem down into its most basic elements.
To tackle each element in the most efficient way under extreme deadline pressure.
To learn more about each other’s skills and roles. (Too few journalists understand coding, too few designers completely understand newsroom workflows.)
And how to deliver an effective pitch.

As we told a gathering of our entire newsroom when we returned: The process was more valuable than the product.

Ben Martin is an assistant editor at The West Australian.