Hacks/Hackers Philly [@hackshackersPHL] held their second meetup on Leap Day, 29 February 2012, at the iconic Philadelphia Inquirer Building. The Philadelphia chapter of Hacks/Hackers, a grassroots journalism organization examining the intersection of journalism and computing, co-hosted the event with philly.com, the online arm of Philly’s biggest newspaper. It was an interesting look into a world very different than the more familiar setting of Fortune 500 companies doing global projects. This is computing in the trenches and newsrooms of Philadelphia.
Reporting from The Data and Demos Meetup …
Members of the Inquirer staff gave presentations during the first half of the meetup about how collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data works in the context of a large newspaper publisher without a large IT budget. Some of the larger stories can take 6-12 months and a sizeable team to complete, like a study of violence in schools or the first fact-based comprehensive analysis of the impact of Philadelphia’s real estate tax reassessment. The data end of that often involves long fights for access to information; getting the goods from a “Freedom of Information” request is rarely as simple as asking. Even agencies dabbling in transparency muddle analysis by changing data formats with the latest fad, and some withdraw from the web altogether after feeling the sting of disinfecting sunlight. That may be the case with detailed public data on fracking operations in Pennsylvania gone missing without warning or explanation earlier this year. The data journalism on the Marcellus controversy to that point was shining an unfavorable light on something our new administration in Harrisburg certainly favors without the burdens of regulation, taxation, and transparency.
Having heard from the hacks, the hackers talked about their projects in the second half. The theme was social activism through social media: Cost of Freedom is a fledgling website to help voters get Photo IDs in states where laws have changed to disenfranchise young, old, and poor voters; Lobbying.ph provides a human-readable experience for exploring the Philadelphia lobbyist data recently made available by the city; WhoPaid is a prototype mobile app using the Shazam approach to identify political ads and who paid for them by capturing audio snippets on mobile phones. Several of these applications came out of Random Hacks of Kindness, a movement around “technology for social good” that sponsors contests and hackathons. Seeing my neighbors doing good works like this rekindles the pride I felt when I first called the Birthplace of American Liberty and City of Brotherly Love my home.
Another Case of Cautious Optimism
I’m often critical of Philadelphia’s low-tech standing despite being one of the country’s ten largest cities. Finding a job in the city for a person like me is remarkably hard, partly due to a bad corporate tax structure and partly from a long history of first-but-no-longer claims to fame. The meetup itself was amazing in organization, content, and participation. The Inquirer hosts are facing another potential change of ownership, one in a series of such events that has underfunded and understaffed the newsroom across the board. Several other attendees commented on how Philly’s tech scene is growing so slowly. We have interested, capable people with good ideas; what’s the missing ingredient? The bright side here is these are just the people with the journalistic and technical skills to figure that out.