"Incoming: feature requests" - Guardian Hacks SXSW Hackday

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 14 February 2011
"Imagine sitting down, today, to plan and build a new news organisation for the 21st century. What would be its founding principles? How would it fund its journalism? And how would it fully exploit and integrate itself with technology that will determine how it is distributed, how it communicates, and it relates to and empowers its readers?" - Jemima Kiss

That is how Jemima Kiss introduced the Guardian Hacks SXSW project to our web audience the other day, and at the weekend I managed to pop in for a bit of the show'n'tell that rounded up the hackday that forms part of it. Only rocking up for the tail-end meant I'd missed the coffee panic, appeals for sleeping bags and a pizza delivery team who couldn't spell The Guardian. All the usual hackday stuff then.

As ever at hack days, a little bit of user experience work can go a long way. Musicmetric impressed with a whizzy visualisation of the relationships between bands, genres, and social web connections like MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, but they had two other hacks to show. Both of them were impressive examples of data-mining, one doing sentiment analysis around bands, and one totting up online coverage of SXSW. Presented as command line interfaces, however, they lacked the visual wow factor that would have given them the impact they probably deserved.

There was an international journalistic presence, with people from La Repubblica and Le Monde present. I was impressed with the Le Monde team taking on the triple-whammy of presenting to a packed audience of their peers, risking a live technical demo, and doing it all in a second language.

Trying to demo hacks live in the short time allocated is hard. There has been some criticism of hackdays recently that people show up and just basically give an existing product demo, explaining how they've added one tiny feature over the last 36 hours. There wasn't too much of that on Sunday, although a couple of presentations caused a ripple of Twitter disquiet.

Does adding a feature to your own product count as a hack? #gsxsw #hackdayless than a minute ago via Nambu


Symptomatic of the rise in importance of mobile and tablet devices is the fact that you can't rely any more on just being able to cue the hack presentations up on two laptops. Instead, a webcam was used so that you could point the camera at whatever device the hack had been developed for.

One hack that suffered from a bit of tech fail was Vueo - which was a real shame. I think their aim was to be able to demonstrate a TV studio editing suite style interface that allowed you to mix video streams coming in from iPhones. That could potentially have a massive impact on the way that news organisations could cover breaking news and live events from the ground, but I don't think they got to show it off to its full advantage.

The hack that appeared to draw the most gasps from the assembled journalists in the room, and consequently won, was Articlr, which was presented by Jason Grant. It was a back-end tool for easily monitoring social media and rival coverage of a story in real-time, and then simply dragging-and-dropping elements from external sites into a story package. With a bit of geo-location goodness thrown in. I fully expect the feature request to be on my Guardian desk by about 11am this morning...

I hate it when I see a #gsxsw hack that I know will be a CMS feature request from @janinegibson on my desk by Monday morningless than a minute ago via Twitter for iPad

@currybet I have helpfully asterisked the ones I want... #gsxswless than a minute ago via Echofon


There is a full list of hacks here, you can follow coverage of Guardian Hacks SXSW on guardian.co.uk, or by searching Twitter for the hashtag #gsxsw.

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