“Wait, so the participants will be hacking into things on campus?”
This was the beginning of a rare conversation between myself and my supervisor, a scientist in academia. I was telling him about Hack Jersey during the infancy of its preparations. Telling from his sideways glance at me when I said “hackathon,” it was obvious that his personal definition of “hacker” followed the popular consensus; when one looks up the word “hacker” on Wikipedia, one of the four definitions is “someone who accesses a computer system by circumventing its security system.” Most people assume that anything involving hacking will result in compromised email accounts, public release of private data, and fraudulent charges on credit card accounts and banking statements. I grew up thinking otherwise, seeing hacking as a way to use my knowledge of code to solve a problem. My problems were normally scripts working incorrectly on some browsers or SQL queries not being fast enough, both outside the realm of what people assumed hacking was necessary for.
This is a reoccurring conversation I have had since Hack Jersey was announced. It is one worth having, though, because when the general perception of programmers is that most of us code by day and break into computer systems at night, a disservice is being done to those who actually use their knowledge for good. What is “good” and what is “evil,” is of course subjective when it comes to anything, especially hacking. I told my supervisor that instead of building applications to scrape private data for malicious use, engineers would be taking open data related to New Jersey and collaborating with journalists to use that data to tell a story. I changed his symbolic perception of the hackathon from a masked man draining his bank account, to a team of people building a map that charts storm damage to be used by potential volunteers for finding out where their help is most needed.
My mentioning of the hackathon to my supervisor was really an aside to another conversation involving interdisciplinary work, which was appropriate after being asked what journalism had to do with hacking. “Interdisciplinary” is a hot term in higher education these days, and for good reason; there may be a lot of data available in a certain field, but it takes collaboration with people in other subject areas to do anything useful with it. Bioinformatics is a great example of an interdisciplinary field, incorporating the studies of computer science, biology, and chemistry. The merging of different areas of study also occurs outside the walls of a research lab, as is evident with the recent popularity of data visualization in journalism.
As a software engineer and total non-journalist, working with “the other side” has only given me great experiences and ideas for using open data. I can build a graph or databank by myself, sure, but I was never good at telling stories with them. My journalism colleagues tend to be the opposite, and we use those differences to learn from each other and tell those stories in a dynamic and interactive way. The knowledge both parties gain from this collaboration is an interdisciplinary one, but one that cannot work without one of the most important ingredients of these visualizations and stories: the data.
One of the first things I teach my Intro to CS/IT students is that data and information are two different things; data is raw and unorganized, whereas information is processed and organized. In essence, taking data and presenting it in a visual way provides information to the reader. The hardest part about coming up with ideas for telling stories and relaying information is the lack of data, be it open, yet in a format that is difficult to gather, or not even available at all.
Back to the subject of Bioinformatics, one of the greatest collections of data in the field is the Human Genome Project. An international research project, it involved scientists from all over mapping the human genome, which involved half a terabyte of data. This project sparked a debate over whether human genes could be patented, just as other genes had been in the past. The Clinton Administration spoke out against it, and brought the issue of open data to both politics and Wall Street, as stocks in companies banking on human gene patenting plummeted. We would all like to consider ourselves the “good guys” in such a debate, promoting open data that can be used to cure diseases and learn more about ourselves. There are people, on the other hand, who believed it is their right to use the data in a way that creates jobs and makes money. Again, good and evil are subjective.
Regardless of what we use data for, though, it needs to be made available in a way that it can be used to provide information. One cannot make a map of towns ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, data that we can assume the state of New Jersey has, without that data being released to the public. The great thing about hackathons is that the government can crowdsource the creation of these data visualizations and applications with little or no cost to the state, but their enormous wealth of data can be used to help its citizens. Hackathons can also change the government’s perception of hackers that code for the common good. I was able to convince my supervisor and other colleagues that we needed this hackathon. Now we need to convince New Jersey, and all other governments, that we need the data.
Jenn Schiffer (@jennschiffer) is the Computer Science Department Administrator at Montclair State University and a freelance web developer. A proponent of open source software, open data, and getting young people interested in technology, she writes about these topics and what it’s like to be a woman in computing on her blog, Pancake Theorem.