And journalism can inspire great technology: Django, a free and open source web application framework used by Pinterest, Instagram and Disqus, was originally built for news websites, Herman noted.
Hacks/Hackers Meetup groups now have nearly 15,000 members across 13 countries. Mariano Blejman, an ICFJ Knight International Fellow, co-founded Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires in 2011. Currently it is the second-largest chapter in the world, with 1,700 members, and organizes hackathons and a 3-day gathering called the Media Party.
A main reason that people come is to learn about the other side of the wall, Blejman said – journalists want to meet and learn from developers and vice versa. The events became particularly popular when he started to bring over speakers from well-known foreign media brands, he said.
Justin Arenstein, also an ICFJ Knight Fellow and founder of the African News Challenge, has launched Hacks/Hackers chapters across Africa. He explained that there, the motivation behind people joining was that they want to tackle some kind of social injustice. There is a focus on building engagement tools at each of the 13 chapters, which have between 100 and 250 members each and are required to meet at least once a month.
As well as regular meetups, Hacks/Hackers hosts four-day bootcamps where journalists who’ve never used a spreadsheet before are paired up with developers. There are also week-long “scrapathons” where people target specific institutions to acquire data, which are followed up by a hackathon to see what can be done with the data.
“Hacks/Hackers is part of a bigger drive to create a whole digital innovation system in Africa,” Arenstein said.
Hackathons are truly useful only when there is adequate follow-up, he pointed out. Donor organisations, governments and NGOs see hackathons as a great marketing opportunity and launch competitions where developers can win monetary prizes, but if they are isolated events then nothing really changes. Developers become adept at making elevator pitches to win the money, but their ideas and products go unused. Ideally hackathons should be seen as ideas-based R&D days that are part of a longer five to six month project.
“Rather than doing broad hackathons we should start hacking our newsrooms, and get papers to open up their editorial archives,” Arenstein said.
Blejman noted that this is a struggle in Argentina. “We are building things mainly outside media companies because media companies don’t want to invest, or open the door to innovation,” he commented. He and his team are building a news accelerator, but it will be a long project, he said.