Archive for the ‘hackathon’ Category

Crisis Text Line: Using Data to Help Teens in Crisis

This morning I’m helping out at a datadive event set up by DataKind (apologies to Aunt Pythia lovers).

The idea is that we’re analyzing metadata around a texting hotline for teens in crisis. We’re trying to see if we can use the information we have on these texts (timestamps, character length, topic – which is most often suicide – and outcome reported by both the texter and the counselor) to help the counselors improve their responses.

For example, right now counselors can be in up to 5 conversations at a time – is that too many? Can we figure that out from the data? Is there too much waiting between texts? Other questions are listed here.

Our “hackpad” is located here, and will hopefully be updated like a wiki with results and visuals from the exploration of our group. It looks like we have a pretty amazing group of nerds over here looking into this (mostly python users!), and I’m hopeful that we will be helping the good people at Crisis Text Line.

Let’s enjoy the backlash against hackathons

As much as I have loved my DataKind hackathons, where I get to meet a bunch of friendly nerds who are spend their weekend trying to solve problems using technology, I also have my reservations about the whole weekend hackathon culture, especially when:

  1. It’s a competition, so really you’re not solving problems as much as boasting, and/or
  2. you’re trying to solve a problem that nobody really cares about but which might make someone money, so you’re essentially working for free for a future VC asshole, and/or
  3. you kind of solve a problem that matters, but only for people like you (example below).

As Jake Porway mentions in this fine piece, having data and good intentions do not mean you can get serious results over a weekend. From his essay:

Without subject matter experts available to articulate problems in advance, you get results like those from the Reinvent Green Hackathon. Reinvent Green was a city initiative in NYC aimed at having technologists improve sustainability in New York. Winners of this hackathon included an app to help cyclists “bikepool” together and a farmer’s market inventory app. These apps are great on their own, but they don’t solve the city’s sustainability problems. They solve the participants’ problems because as a young affluent hacker, my problem isn’t improving the city’s recycling programs, it’s finding kale on Saturdays.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some good friends and created some great collaborations via hackathons (and especially via Jake). But it only gets good when there’s major planning beforehand, a real goal, and serious follow-up. Actually a weekend hackathon is, at best, a platform from which to launch something more serious and sustained.

People who don’t get that are there for something other than that. What is it? Maybe this parody hackathon announcement can tell us.

It’s called National Day of Hacking Your Own Assumptions and Entitlement, and it has a bunch of hilarious and spot-on satirical commentary, including this definition of a hackathon:

Basically, a bunch of pallid millenials cram in a room and do computer junk. Harmless, but very exciting to the people who make money off the results.

This question from a putative participant of an “entrepreneur”-style hackathon:

“Why do we insist on applying a moral or altruistic gloss to our moneymaking ventures?”

And the internal thought process of a participant in a White House-sponsored hackathon:

I realized, especially in the wake of the White House murdering Aaron Swartz, persecuting/torturing Bradley Manning and threatening Jeremy Hammond with decades behind bars for pursuit of open information and government/corporate accountability that really, no-one who calls her or himself a “hacker” has any business partnering with an entity as authoritarian, secretive and tyrannical as the White House– unless of course you’re just a piece-of-shit money-grubbing disingenuous bootlicker who uses the mantle of “hackerdom” to add a thrilling and unjustified outlaw sheen to your dull life of careerist keyboard-poking for the status quo.


March 25, 2013 1 comment


This Friday, I’ll be participating at HackPrinceton.

My team will be training an EEG to recognize yes and no thoughts for particular electromechanical devices and creating general human brain interface (HBI) architecture.

We’ll be working on allowing you to turn on your phone and navigate various menus with your mind!

There’s lots of cool swag and prizes – the best being jobs at Google and Microsoft. Everyone on the team has experience in the field,* but of course the more the merrier and you’re welcome no matter what you bring (or don’t bring!) to the table.

If you’re interested, email ASAP!

*So far we’ve got a math Ph.D., a mech engineer, some CS/Operations Research guys and while my field is finance I picked up some neuro/machine learning along the way. If you have nothing to do for the next three days and want to learn something specifically for this competition, I recommend checking out my personal favorites:, or

NYC data hackathons, past and future: Politics, Occupy, and Climate change (#OWS)

The past: Money in politics

First thing’s first, I went to the Bicoastal Datafest a few weekends ago and haven’t reported back. Mostly that’s because I got sick and didn’t go on the second day, but luckily other people did, like Kathy Kiely from the Sunlight Foundation, who wrote up this description of the event and the winning teams’ projects.

And hey, it turns out that my new company shares an office with Harmony Institute, whose data scientist Burton DeWilde was on the team that won “Best in Show” for their orchestral version of the federal government’s budget.

Another writeup of the event comes by way of Michael Lawson, who worked on the team that set up an accounting fraud detection system through Benford’s Law. I might be getting a guest blog post about this project through another one of its team members soon.

And we got some good progress on our DataKind/ Sunlight Foundation money-in-politics project as well, thanks to DataKind intern Pete Darche and math nerds Kevin Wilson and Johan de Jong.

The future one week from now: Occupy

Next up, on March 1st and 2nd at CUNY Graduate Center is this data hackathon called OccupyData (note this is a Friday and Saturday, which is unusual). You can register for the event here.

It’s a combination of an Occupy event and a datafest, so obviously I am going to try to go. The theme is general – data for the 99% – but there’s a discussion on this listserv as to the various topics people might want to focus on (Aaron Swartz and Occupy Sandy are coming up for example). I’m looking forward to reporting back (or reporting other people’s report-backs if my kids don’t let me go).

The future two weeks from now: Climate change

Finally, there’s this datathon, which doesn’t look open to registration, but which I’ll be participating in through my work. It’s stated goal is “to explore how social and meteorological data can be combined to enhance social science research on climate change and cities.”  The datathon will run Saturday March 9th – Sunday March 10th, 2013, starting noon Saturday, with final presentations at noon Sunday. I’ll try to report back on that as well.