Sunday, November 22, 2015

Intro to Tech Culture: AT&T Hackathon

Tech culture is fascinating.
When thinking about images that have to do with Innovation, the media of portray the advent of new devices in terms of clashes. The future versus the past, the urban versus the rustic, Skynet versus John Connor.

I admit to being one of them. I gladly hold onto the writings of Wendell Berry and look with a certain amount of horror to how close we are as a society to Fahrenheit 451, a nation  oblivious to being in constant war due to the surrounding noise that comes from having multiple digital screens in front of us.

But that is unfair, civilization has always advanced through two avenues, distance and communication. The roads built by Rome increased trade route and culture, and the steam engine made way for the Industrial Revolution. Not to be outdone, communication through the telegraph and telephone helped create a boom into the Roaring 20s.

Now it's the digital age, and as author Peter Wallison asserts in "Hidden in Plain Sight", communication now allows us to do two things, travel through space and travel through time.

We travel through space in the form of a phone call, using internet based interfaces such as Skype allows myself to communicate with a friend using the same as app all over the world. In Kenya, I was able to talk to my parents in America daily, this was something ten years ago that would have been unheard of by volunteers in the same region.

We travel through time in a more beautiful fashion. Letters, sent and received perhaps a in week (or in my case in Kenya, several months), are thoughts and messages from the past that I would read in the future. Now, texting interfaces such as Whatsapp allow us to read these messages in near real time. The time machine becomes more "instant".

For my class Technology Solutions for Development & Social Change, I went to the AT&T Hackathon on November 7th and 8th. A Hackathon is a place where developers mix together to make a solution to a problem using their experience in programming within a short timeframe. Think of a 19th century salon of free thinkers mixed with digital masons. People come together and make solutions
The Venue
The AT&T Hackathon was at the Centre for Social Innovation in NYC, an appropriately named venue. As you can see, the location was a mix of warm informal decoration and open factory like space.
Within this venue were people of various tech backgrounds. I met with back end (coding internally) and front end (visual user interface, the people who design the part you can see and interact with) developers.

I can speak English, Swahili, Bangla, and bits of Japanese, but here people will speaking in languages of Java, Python, and C++ if they loved antiquated language.
People spoke languages of digital synthesis, speaking with their fingers instead of their tongues.

As overwhelming as that sounds, it was impressive. And I have nothing but awe for people who come on a given weekend just to exercise their capacity to build.
The Structure
The set up was that pitches went first, taking a cue from a previous classmate, I decided that my value would be in ideas, so I pitched my idea immediately: A social network interface that connects to Kindle reading apps that allows people to see in real time what others are reading.
Fortunately, there were quite a few developers interested, but the set up of the Hackathon was flawed. Sure enough, after the pitches, there was a presentation about how this Hackathon was set up for AT&T to test their new contextual API feature. In essence, any pitches set up earlier that did not have to do with this API, would not be in the running for the contest.
That said, the API was relatively simple, you call someone and are given additional options. Perhaps that person can send a text message in response to your call saying "I'm not alone in the car, so do not be as informal", or it can create a call log based on how many times you call.
I changed my pitch towards security. I asked, what if you can call someone multiple times, and if there is no response, you can find out their location?
Fortunately, several programmers were interested. These programmers included two Ghanaian classmates who were into the back end and front end respectively, two other American students younger than me, and an older professional.
So we began to code that night


Immediately there were challenges based on the limited of the API. Originally, I wanted to be able to record audio that way the concerned caller could listen in and see if anything was amiss. However, if the user does not pick up, then no further actions could be taken. We compromised by using the call log feature to connect with the app so that the app could prerecord GPS locations and sounds during check ins. 
Management became key, while I wasn't a programmer, I was able to organize the team into back end and front end development and make sure everyone was on task. I also was able to ask questions or provide insight. For example, I helped with front end when I compared interfaces to similar devices, such as Find My Iphone and bSafe.


However, while we left Saturday night confident that we had something we could really work on, an unexpected tragedy occurred. One of the key back end developers got into a car accident, prompting him to go to the hospital. His Ghanian class mate ended up not showing up. Similarly, the older gentleman who showed up the night before left as well.
So what do you do? It was just three of us now We spent four hours continuously coding, working on front end and back end design. However, we reached our limits due to the number of tasks set out and the limited experience everyone had.
Eventually we had to give up.
The Environment
Some passing thoughts, Hackathons are wonderful spaces for a lot of coders to simply just communicate. The previous winner just got other coders in a circle to talk about idea development and overcoming the stress in enacting the idea.
A lot of the challenges in Hackathons or the tech sphere didn't seem to just be about technical skills, but understanding and overcoming personal limitations and grasping behavioral situations, not so different than challenges faced in the development sector. However, unlike the latter sector, I noticed that there is a lot of optimism in this realm about solving challenges using growing digital interfaces that smartphones offer.
Changing the dichotomy of being a passive user of technology
For better or for worse, smartphone use will increase, and I appreciate that it allows for opportunity to grow in ways we never could. However, just scrolling through my Facebook feed is unappealing in what that entails. If I spend several hours reading or liking other people's thoughts, doesn't that fundamentally change me? The Hackathon has showed me the other side of technology, creation.
I have been repeatedly contacted by the older coder to work on the reading app. It is rather poetic to realize that everyday, we create worlds on digital screens, producing content of thoughts, outrage, and passion. I would like to see what it's like to help design something new.
As for the remainder of Saturday?
I made two really good friends, we ended up exploring the building instead, sneaking out to the roof where there not very technological barriers.
It was a beautiful view




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