An insider’s guide to Hacktucky

For those who have been slogging through the daily grind of producing a newspaper, the idea of a hackathon at SND Louisville might not seem to make any sense.

To someone on the outside, hackathons immediately conjure images of over-caffinated, pizza-filled throngs of people huddled around folding tables lurching over their laptops and making the internet. It’s funny that you can basically switch internet for newspaper and have the same image of a newsroom reflecting back at you.
In truth, a hackathon has the ability to draw a diverse group of people together to collaborate and create things that can be beneficial to both the creators and the community at large.

Hacktucky is about breaking the traditional conference mode of sitting in a room and having an expert talk at you. Instead, the experts on hand are here to create with you. This change is about redefining the conference experience and allowing people to use their time together to envision themselves in new roles with a clear next step to tackle when they get back to their daily lives.

This change should be jarring. Many might not know the first thing about building websites. “What can I get out of a hackathon?” they’ll ask. For these individuals, Hacktucky will represent an opportunity to uncover the unknown unknowns of web development. This is also known as—where to start. Once you take the first steps and see where those things can lead, the pain associated with rest of the change is somewhat blunted.

But we’ve all been undergoing some amount of change for a while as we are part of industry that has been busy redefining itself for decades. It’s funny how we often strive for change and yet allow legacy concepts continue to stand in our way when we need to be rethinking those ideas as well.

Let’s take the concept of deadlines.In the not too distant past, most of us were bound by local, state, metro, region, two-star, five-star, home and/or final edition deadlines.

You either hit your deadlines or there was hell to pay. Stories were hastily submitted and edited against ridiculous time constraints, staffs were pushed to their breaking point in search of the perfect headlines and photos would run out of register on the press just to get the copies off in time so that we could put them into the gas-guzzling trucks that would run them into the morning light in hopes that underpaid neighborhood couriers would go the final mile and deliver the news on time and not in the bushes.

We created under the burden of daily stress, with little feedback from the public beyond the raw circulation numbers that only showed what sold—not what mattered to people.

Web development represents the means to distribute and build on your own terms and this power disrupts newsrooms at a fundamental level in a manner that we simply haven’t mastered yet.

Code also gives us the ability to make deadlines more of a tool than an ultimatum. Deadlines become a driver of initial release. They become the target—not the end. And when this happens, we begin to benchmark what we can do in a set amount of time and start the process of honing our craft and learning new skills to stack atop the ones that we have accumulated.

For SND and its membership, this represents an opportunity to gather and grow together.

Hacktucky was born as a challenge to myself and to attendees of my SNDcle session which focused on breaking into code. And while starting is required for progress at any level, progress needs to be measured. Hacktucky will be that measuring stick for many people.

It will be challenging, but I think that Hacktucky and hackathons like it represent the greatest opportunity for rapid growth in all their associated conferences settings. Whether its SXSW, NICAR or ONA, hackathons are where the best of the best are gathering. It’s beyond time for SND to have an event of its own.

SND caught up with Chris to ask him a few questions about the logistics of Hacktucky. Here’s what he had to say.

What is a hackathon? A hackathon is a gathering of ambitious individuals from different backgrounds who come together to make things under the pressure of somewhat ridiculous deadlines. These events can be difficult to define because so much of what they actually are is a direct reflection of who is participating and what is produced at them.

What exactly are people building at this thing? The goal of Hacktucky is to build web applications that are focused on being useful to the people of Louisville and the surrounding area. Some teams may utilize one of the many existing datasets that are available on the Louisville Open Data portal while other teams may opt to find interesting ways to weave available APIs together. So outside of our desire to focus on building things specific to Louisville, everything else about how the teams arrive at their final products is really open.

Is this event for mobile, tablet, desktop? With only 24 hours to build a product from scratch, I think everyone should understand that the projects produced will be in various stages of ‘finished’. That said, the words of NPR’s Brian Boyer ring clearly in my head… “If it doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t exist.” So do with that what you will.

My coding and developing skills add up to zilch. Can I partake in this event? With any project, there are many tasks that someone without development experience could be helpful with. Graphic design work, copy editing, UX/UI wireframing, copy editing, product research, copy editing, the person who looks at it on IE7, copy editing and project management are just a few of the positions where someone with limited development experience can immediately step in and be helpful. Did I mention copy editing?

At the end of the day, hackathons can be an amazing opportunity to see where your skills currently are while getting an idea of where they need to be. You get to thrust yourself into a different collaborative environment and be exposed to a variety of stimuli that will push you in directions that you’ve never considered.

In short, if you are interested at all in web development, apply for Hacktucky.

How will the teams be selected and work? Teams will be constructed directly from the pool of applicants that have been sending in their applications for consideration at Once the Sept. 30th deadline has passed, we’ll review all the applicants and begin filling the teams out.

Every team will have at least one developer and one designer. To ensure that every team is also serving as a learning laboratory, there will also be a student or a person with no development experience on each team. Beyond these criteria, some of the selection process will simply come down to how many teams we field for the conference.

Where will everyone get their data and information? We’re pushing people to first consider what is available via the Louisville Open Data portal. There are 32 unique datasets there that are specifically focused on Louisville. We’re currently browsing through other Kentucky-focused open data sources as well and will list them on the Hacktucky site. Also, any publicly available API is fair game. If you can do something interesting with Louisville snow routes and Foursquare, be our guest. The goal isn’t to limit your options, but to set a target and let the teams determine how they reach it.

Say my team builds an awesome app. Can we sell it for millions? That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? However, this event is really focused on team learning, personal growth and giving back to the community that is hosting us—Louisville, Kentucky. So while the goal at Hacktucky shouldn’t be solely focused building the next Facebook, maybe you’ll meet the person that you end up building that next Facebook with while attending Hacktucky. And if that happens, just gather after the event and get started on making your millions… and remember to buy us all beer when you file for your IPO.

Can all of this really happen in less than 24 hours? While I doubt many of the apps presented on Saturday will be complete, I do know that time has a funny way of forcing us to pare down what we are attempting to do and really focusing on getting that one thing right. Every project will have one thing that it simply can’t function without. The team leaders will likely identify that one thing and push to lock that down for Saturday.

Also, don’t discount the power of things that can be done very quickly. A simple idea, paired with the right framework might be approach that wows everyone in the days and weeks that follow the event. So don’t be afraid to underwhelm the audience with a simple idea that everyone ends up using.

There will also be concepts and ideas that generate out of this event that simply can’t be attempted on such a short timeline, and that’s ok too. Those ideas will come to the surface eventually as time tends to make itself available when something is gnawing at you.

About Chris Courtney

is a news applications developer at The Chicago Tribune.

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