Hacking Seattle News: One winner, but many winning ideas

I love hackfests. So I was stoked to bring the idea to my day job at KING 5 this past weekend. I saw it as a great opportunity for a mainstream news organization to connect with the amazing tech community in Seattle with a goal of building a new “homepage for Seattle.” (In 2009, I organized two hackfests in Seattle called GonzoCamp, so I have long seen the value on merging news and tech.)

I’m fortunate that my boss, Ray Heacox, is fully digital, a former tech entrepreneur and as forward-thinking as they come in the rarefied air of the big office. You’ve never heard of him because he doesn’t care about making the industry blogs and trade publications. But I can attest that he is on par with any of those CEOs making headlines these days for “digital first” thinking. He was on board with the hackathon from the beginning and even offered the idea of making it into a TV show; we’re a TV station, he reasoned, that’s what we do. Cool, I said.

With his support and the assistance of several key people in the Seattle tech community and at KING 5, we staged a very successful event over 48 hours last weekend called Hacking Seattle News. Adobe provided an excellent space, power, wifi and whiteboards, Amazon provided AWS gift accounts and food, and KING 5 filled in the rest. It was a small event by Seattle standards with only 30-some people, which was surprising to me given the fact we were offering $10,000 as first prize. But quality trumped quantity in this case: 10 teams pitched ideas on Sunday and almost all of them were substantial and included working prototypes. One team traveled from San Francisco and several other people came to simply assist the teams with knowledge, dropping in when they could to help shape the ideas that were in development.

The winner, Team Dimensions, produced an HTML 5 website and mobile experience that allows customized news feeds based on location, interest and time (presentation slides here). (In the spirit of hackfests, most of the team had never met one one another before the weekend.) We have already met with the team and are working on developing the prototype into something the public can use and enjoy. Our vision is to launch it as that “homepage for Seattle.”

Selecting one project was a difficult decision, but thankfully we had an all-star cast of judges to make the final call. (Team photo here including my son as “honorary judge.”)

The goal of the hackathon was to solve the thorny problem of producing one-stop shopping for local news and information in a way that other cities could use. It is an open-source project and the code will reside on Github, as will the bug and feature requests as we move forward.

We presented the “problem” on Friday: I showed a quick deck (and a metaphor for touring NYC with my niece and how, unless you know someone who lives there, you never see the real NYC) and Ben Huh chimed in with his Moby Dick Project. Then Shauna Causey, who came up with the original idea for this hackathon, brought it all together with her amazing command of social media and a compelling story of a shooting down the street from her beach volleyball game.

The event offers several lessons, including:

  1. How tech folks can teach – and learn from – news professionals about the persistent problem of filtering the fire hose of news and information in a community.
  2. How a big media company can harness the knowledge and talent of the local community to help solve a problem. Yes, crowdsourcing at its best!
  3. How news organizations can shape their view of technology by interfacing personally with smart and talented people in the local tech community.

It’s the last lesson that my boss was most interested in. Whether the project we launch with Team Dimensions is a big hit with the public or not, KING 5 gained valuable knowledge and relationships by hosting this event. It is likely that the true payoff – the ROI on our $10,000 prize money – will come in some unexpected manner, even if the project that Dimensions built doesn’t work quite as well as we hope. That is the spirit that so many tech companies thrive on, yet it’s something that media companies struggle with.

We need to live in an agile world. Agile, as in the software and startup methodology, and in our daily priorities. Hosting a hackathon helped expose others at KING 5 to a new way of thinking and adaptation and problem-solving. It’s hard to put a price on that.

As my boss had recommended, KING 5 documented the weekend for an upcoming TV special. When we were cleaning up Sunday night I asked one of the photographers what he thought of the event. He just shook his head and said to me, “Man, I learned A LOT this weekend.”


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