Towards a culture of openness: afterthoughts on the first hackathon in Cyprus OR Self-organisation initiatives and their adoption of models of openness in Cyprus between 2011 and 2012

This google document is in progress. It started as some thoughts on hack{cyprus}*12 and turned into a piece on openness. The Cyprus Dossier said they’d be happy to publish it as soon as it’s finalised. This isn’t likely to happen any time soon, nor does it make sense to put it in a form that doesn’t allow others to contribute, or to present it as finished. You can comment in general or on parts of the text as is, & do get in touch you would like to have editing / contributing rights.]

[edited May 2014 edit: In a number of ways, this is a document I am not particularly fond of but will keep online nevertheless. Thanks to @ekapros for his comments back in the day.]

Perhaps it’s naive to enter any situation, even a hackathon, with the presumption of openness.[1] After all, why share with strangers? Why give something away without direct exchange? Why work on something without a clear view to personal profit? To those familiar with openness in collaboration, the answer to all these questions is: because openness works. Since the 90s technologists and creatives in the west, have counted on this as a key ingredient for innovation, along with the need to continuously bring in people with different perspectives. In organisation theory these issues quickly extend to issues of governance and citizenship. Aside from issues of governmental data openness, ‘transparency,’ ‘accountability’ and so on, there are also questions like: Is there such a thing as ‘the common good’ and if so, how do we work towards it? Can open systems function well for extended periods of time? Are they useful models for civil society? Can we use them in order to effect systemic bottom-top changes?

That isn’t to say that openness is necessary or desirable in all cases. Some will argue that it is entirely utopian, and the jury is still out (excuse the incompatible metaphor) on whether the Occupy movement’s direct democracy experiments have provided a working model of openness, while Wikileaks is a great example of an organisation that works towards openness, but does not practice it. At the same time it is also debatable whether the rhetoric of openness is only meaningful or successful as an exception within highly competitive settings.[2]

I went to hack{cyprus}*12[3] with the notion that one thing needed towards openness, in Cyprus, at this time, was the development of technologies that encourage the sharing of public data (elsewhere termed as civic apps), and I left with the realisation that this is a chicken and egg situation: we need a culture of openness and collaboration in order to be successful in developing such technologies. The question, therefore, is how do we move towards a culture that encourages openness in more general terms?

Precedent

Hackathons, barcamps, and unconferences are by definition non-hierarchical, participatory experiments in open collaboration and self-organisation. They come out of the idea that when people allow themselves the freedom to do what they want, they will work together to do amazing things, and the first thing to say about hack{cyprus}*12 is that it was productive, warm, well organised, intensive, and absolutely great fun. A good number of people with high levels of skill and a great variety of technological expertise came together to work.[4] But not necessarily to work together. That isn’t a statement intended as a critique of hack{cyprus} but one that describes a dominant culture that the hackathon was trying to overcome. The same could be said about THATCamp Cyprus 2011 and Occupy the Buffer Zone, initiatives which experimented with models of openness locally, and which are thus valuable case studies, both in their successes and failures.

THATCamp Cyprus 2011[5] (an unconference focused on the intersection of technology and the humanities, which I helped organise) was addressed to humanities students and scholars, librarians, archivists, museum professionals, technologists and interested amateurs with an interest in the digital humanities, and used an online system (intended) to let people socialise in advance and put forward their ideas about shared problems and solutions. It gathered minimal institutional support, did not manage a decent turnout, and even though the majority of participants did end up speaking up and sharing their views, they never managed to break into teams and work towards common goals. Occupy the Buffer Zone[6] on the other hand created a community which aspired to a type of direct democracy in some ways, although this was never coherently implemented (I was disheartened to attend a general assembly where participants were asked to vote on whether they agreed with voting as a decision making practice). As it automatically assimilated a pre-existing squatting community and their set practices, it also inherited their necessary closedness. Information didn’t travel well beyond the camp, open working groups were not part of its structure,[7] and despite the much emphasised ‘reunification’ angle, there was no application of the inbuilt conflict resolution processes of direct democracy as employed by the occupy movement elsewhere. As a result personal differences became difficult to overcome, not to mention the resulting trouble with the police and the UN. With this sweeping, and inevitably unfair assessment I don’t mean to demoralise, but the opposite, and it may well be that Occupy Cyprus and THATCamp Cyprus have yet to have their final say. Both deserve to be examined closely as applications of models of openness developed elsewhere, especially regarding whether they may be revealing of a type of endemic resistance.[8] Compared to the above two, hack{cyprus}*12 presents an entirely different case.

The first Cypriot hackathon

Hack{cyprus}*12 was extremely successful with sponsors, had a turnout that exceeded expectations, the participants did work in teams, and there were results to show at the end. The format was taken from hackathons held abroad, with the organisers having personal experience of how these work, and it was controlled in a way that ensured that those with no such experience could get into the spirit. Inevitably because of the interests of the sponsors, the focus stayed around commercial mobile app-building. A caveat that allowed companies of developers to come in as such, ensured that the hackathon would end up with some well turned-out results, thus presenting the risk of the whole thing devolving into a type of pageant for local tech-companies.

Out of the 80 or so people attending the hackathon only five or six got up to put forward their thoughts on the morning of the first day.[9] The majority of those who stuck around after that had come to the hackathon with their own teams, a number of which corresponded to companies. They did not let people know what they planned to work on, did not seek feedback or new partners and emerged at the end of the second day to present for the competition. There were three notable exceptions to this. (1) A wonderfully spirited international group of friends proposed the idea to work on a submarine device that streamed video and was remotely controlled via an android application. They presented their idea and sought input from others, the team was expanded, recruiting new members (see and quickly fell into a mode of concentrated industry.[10] (2) The Wajee Mobile Ltd team which, although it was there to promote the company, played a fun self-referential trick by theming the augmented reality mobile game they were developing after the hackathon itself, and used other participants for prototype testing (see HackCy Defender). And (3) creditably, one preexisting two-member team did spread out, looking for ideas and potential collaborators but eventually decided to work on a commercial application (see ParkingFinder), which they would later be able to market through their company.

Those who had come to the hackathon alone wandered, testing the waters, and looking for common interests in order to form a team. For some of us this was a meaningful and exciting process. For those who felt that their purpose there was to write code, this was somewhat frustrating. Although one or two new teams were formed, none of them chose to present their work at the end of the hackathon. This was because, inevitably, they felt at a disadvantage alongside the highly polished work the teams with preexisting projects were capable of producing. Even though the organisers (the Cypriot Enterprise Link) did their best to encourage everyone to present their work despite its level of progress, there was no emphasis on sharing for the sake of sharing. Those who did not feel they had a chance to win in the competition did not present, and so the prizes, instead of being an inconsequential motivator became central to the whole thing. Another point about the presentations was that the majority of them were put together on Prezi or PowerPoint and so were more or less indistinguishable from investor pitches or student presentations. It occurred to me while watching that this out-of-context adherence to rather ineffective ways of sharing ideas (which in this case had become assumed norms cancelling out any open process) could be seen as a type of unintentional trolling.

Re-opening a closed open project

Speaking of sharing for the sake of sharing, during the idea presentations on the morning of the first day I put forward the suggestion that we start to take control of public data and make it easy to use for ourselves, rather than wait for the government to do it for us or for companies to do it commercially. I proposed that we concentrate on things that seem urgent in Cyprus like (1) being prepared to crowd-source information in the case of an emergency (this could translate into a project where we could simulate a disaster scenario and explore ways to respond), (2) figuring out a system for whistle-blowing (we could put together a guide to encourage local whistleblowers) and tracking corruption (there are international tools for this, we could test to see whether they can be of any use in Cyprus). Or (3) start smaller, perhaps with something like a journey planner tool for public transport. My intention was to introduce this type of perspective and find people with similar concerns.

There was very little response to these ideas as such, although I did start working within a newly-formed team towards a crowdsourcing mobile app that could very well get the attention of a good part of the Cypriot population: a mobile app for crowdsourcing information about recent ephemeral phenomena, with the example of road accidents, bird, animal or police sightings, locations of fires, or just about anything groups of users may wish to track using a user-generated tagging system. Even though this is pretty much easily realisable through the application of existing open-source web-based tools, the developers wished to start from scratch, something that was impossible to do in the available time. As a result, and although we did great work refining the concept, very little actual coding was done and the decision was made not to present anything at the end of the hackathon. The developers in the team considered it a matter of professionalism not to put unfinished work up against the polished work of others in a competition. Eventually ownership for the project was claimed by a team member who felt they had provided the spark for the central idea, and who resolved to work on it alone at some point in the future, with the invitation that the rest could join him.

The irony is difficult to ignore: that of an idea for an urgent crowdsourcing, open data and transparency project, that could be easily implemented using open-source tools, worked on collectively at a hackathon, to be claimed and closed up.[11] And yet there is little point in advocating openness to the point of creating conflict. There are other ways, this piece of writing being one of them.

Afterthoughts

Issues around credit and ownership are an inevitable part of any hackathon, even if it is held internally within a company. The way to deal with these issues is not to let them come up or, in other words, to concentrate on things that one is happy to share. The important thing is that questions like ‘How are you doing that?!’ or ‘Can I help?’ never become inappropriate to ask. At the same time productive non-hierarchical teamwork is extremely difficult to achieve, especially when there is no presumed consensus or organisational system around which a team comes together. Openness in this sense is at once an organisational framework, a method for teamwork, and good behavioural advice. It was clear these were things hack{cyprus} aspired to, and even though this didn’t quite show in the results, great things did happen.

Highly skilled people got to meet, hang out and have fun, amazing work was developed allowing the team-dynamics of existing companies to shine through (see Mr Point by SNQ), and great pre-existing work received much needed exposure. More importantly the time spent together allowed for the development of solidarity among like-minded people. But imagine this going down differently: imagine abandoning the presumption that the work produced during the hackathon would be intended for commercial deployment. Imagine members of tech companies not coming in as representatives of their work-place, but as individuals willing to contribute to a project of common interest. Imagine people taking it as a priority to let others know what they were working on, how they were progressing, combining projects that went in similar directions, and organically reconfiguring the teams to get the best results. And in the end imagine people simply and directly sharing what they did and what they learned, and what they thought was important to do onwards. I suspect that the results would have been a lot more promising.[12]

Given local precedent, the first Cypriot hackathon did wonderfully well. It was a truly valiant and well executed effort that went against a great number of local systemic biases, hopefully so that future efforts can move towards openness rather than commercial exhibitionism. One thing especially interesting in itself was the fact that the participants’ choice prize did not go to any of the teams mentioned earlier, but to Tomash Ghz, a guy who worked alone yet at the same time went about things in a social way. He kept to the centre of the main room for the two days, cheerfully and transparently perfecting his odd musical creations. He was open to input, welcomed interruptions, and didn’t take himself or what he was doing seriously, joking that the point of his creations was that they had no point. And so he was more effective in introducing notions of openness than probably anything an organisation theorist might have thought to try.

This piece was difficult to write. It was important not to let personal frustrations turn constructive comment into destructive criticism, while reflexively working towards a discussion on the possibilities for open collaboration and its necessity, in Cyprus, at this time. It was also written with awareness of a need for an sincere snapshot of issues central to the Cypriot tech industry and startup scene at this time, its relationship with business, its connections with the international tech community, and its ability to adopt and adapt models developed elsewhere.[13]

Let’s return to the question posed in the beginning: How do we move towards a culture that encourages or better tolerates openness? We could, from a digital humanities perspective, consider openness as a type of technology in itself. Perhaps the thing to do is begin by putting things out earnestly, quickly and roughly, allowing and being forgiving about error, without worrying about profit, credit, or ownership. So here goes.

p.s. Also see Open initiatives:
http://cyindep.eu/euro-mediterranean-souk 12 October, 2012 – UN Buffer Zone
Unconscious Architectures – 11 & 13 October, 2012
POINT Contemporary Arts 7-9 October, 2012 (?)
on the Cy tech industry
http://cyprusnews.eu/lydia-jannet/612837
EU institutions struggle to adapt openness principle
http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/imported/eu-institutions-struggle-to-adapt-openness-principle-/69170.aspx


[1] Openness is used here to refer to transparency, communication, and inclusion. The term is used in the study of organisation to refer to a non-hierarchical decision-making process. It is related to the notion of open systems, or systems that continually interact with their environment, which is central to information theory and systems theory while it has also concerned the social sciences. For a take on the complications of the open source movement see A Legal Issues Primer for Open Source and Free Software Projects. For a take on openness and transparency with regard to information technology defined in broader terms see Robert Steele’s Open Source Everything. For a taster see this article on Wired.

[2] For some of the problems with self-organising systems see Adam Curtis’s documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011). Thanks to A.V. for incessantly going on about this.

[3] For a run through of the projects presented in the end of the hackathon / entries for the prize competition, see blog post by @mamchenkov . For images of hack{cyprus}*12 see the organiser’s facebook page. For context and explanatory information see <href=”#comments”>Cyprus Mail article. For a report after the event see article on Microsoft News. For a report by @alexismic, one of the organisers see A tale of hacking in Cyprus: Lessons learned from organizing a hackathon.

[4] The majority of participants to the hackathon were developers, quite a few with an interest in mobile apps, although not that many entrepreneurs and apart from myself, no links to the humanities or the digital humanities. Not that many girls either.

[5] THATCamp Cyprus 2011 (The Humanities and the Technology Camp) was an unconference held on 3-4 September 2011 at the Visual Sociology and Museum Studies Lab, at the Cyprus University of Technology. It was organised by myself in collaboration with Marina Yerali – Christodoulou, using a framework developed by the Roy Rosenweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Virginia. See here for a post-mortem.

[6] For information on Occupy the Buffer Zone see blog, <href=”#!/OccupyBufferZ”>twitter, facebook page, and this attempt at an <href=”#!forum/occucy”>open online mailing list.

[7] As far as I could ascertain only one ‘media team’ was formed, in the shape of an invitation-only facebook group.

[8] Occupy the Buffer Zone requires special attention, and I’m sure this will be attempted in time by more qualified individuals. For a post-mortem of THATCamp Cyprus 2011 see here.

[9] Lydia Zannettou, of OpenCoffee Cyprus, confirmed in conversation that the low number of people willing to publicly share their ideas was also a persistent pattern in OpenCoffee events in Cyprus.

[10] Characteristically this was an international, English speaking group.

[11] It became obvious during the presentations that another team in the hackathon was working on a similar and potentially merge-able project. See Momendos.

[12] I suspect the real work was done afterwards, over drinks. I regret that I missed that part. I took off, thinking the CEL’s ‘we’re going to go home and sleep now’ wasn’t just a joke. But I have every intention to be there next time.

[13] I had a great conversation about this during the hackathon with Marina Theodorou of Curveball and TEDxNicosia, with regard to the expectations venture capitalists might have from start-ups within ’emerging local ecosystems’.

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