Hacking for the Planet

13 November, 2011 at 11:26 | Posted in Environmental issues, IT and Media, sustainable development | Leave a comment
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An international crowd gathered in New York to up the availability of earth data

By Aron Lamm
Times Staff

Over the weekend, dozens of scientists, developers, designers, and visionaries got together at New York University to “hack” environmental data.

The event, dubbed EcoHackNYC, is part of a larger movement of “hacking” as a new approach to problem solving for the good of society. The New York hacking event innovated ways to collect and use, and present information about the environment.

For most people, the word hacking probably conjures images of teenage computer nerds breaking into the NASA website for fun. But the term has more recently come to mean finding fast, unorthodox solutions to problems.

One of the organizers of EcoHackNYC, Andrew Hill of Vizzuality, said, “Hacking is trying to find rapid solutions to problems. Not always the most beautiful and refined solution, but the quickest way to the answer.”

“But it’s always also had an aspect of playfulness, being entertained by the problem you’re challenged with, so you’re working really fast and hard to find a solution,” he said.

The Epoch Times met up with him and co-organizer Robin Kraft, a couple of hours before the event started Friday evening. Hill is a biologist, and Kraft has a varied background including economic development and geography.

Both companies work with different ways of visualizing scientific data and making it accessible, as well as involving “ordinary” netizens in scientific projects. Vizzuality is for example involved in NASA’s Planet Hunters project where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can pitch in to find planets by sifting through data from the Kepler spacecraft. Kraft’s spatial data processing company Redd Metrics, is also working on mapping and monitoring global deforestation through the Internet.

Kraft said that one of the goals of EcoHackNYC is to get different people together in an open and creative environment.

“I’m just really excited to see random weird stuff happen,” he said. “When you get people from such different backgrounds, you just don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of collaborations in the future and how they will approach problems.”

Hacking events for the common good are held on a vast array of topics these days, many of them coordinated and supported by the organization Random Hacks of Kindness (RHOK), which was also a partner for EcoHackNYC.

On the RHOK website, one can find reports from global or local “hackathons” on subjects such as development in Latin America, autism, or water problems in London.
EcoHackNYC was local in that it was not coordinated with any other cities, but its reach was global, with participants from countries including Brazil, Spain, the U.K., and China joining. Its subject, the environment, was of course also both very global and local.

The event kicked off at the Tisch ITP at NYU on Friday evening with Ignite Talks, where everyone with a project had exactly five minutes and 15 presentation slides to explain their idea. On Saturday, an unconference was held, where people would team up as they pleased, forming small groups to work on problems.

In total 13 projects were presented covering a wide range of subjects including visualizing deforestation over time, mapping historical weather conditions from old ship’s logs, examining the impact of starlings as an invasive species, and making climate change research transparent and accessible. Oh, and let’s not forget: finding out where exactly the stuff New Yorkers flush down the toilet goes! But we’ll get back to that.

On Saturday morning, participants convened with laptops and caffeinated beverages for the all-day hackfest. At the presentation held at end of the day, it became clear that ideas had been explored and cross-pollinated, with some actual rudimentary websites having been set up. Lots of networking had taken place, including with overseas participants.

Craig Mills, who works with the U.N. World conservation monitoring center in Cambridge, England, had not attended an event like this before, but was very pleased with the format, and came to some interesting results by combining his data with that of another researcher, who was looking into how civil war affects wildlife.

“Sometimes we’re working on very similar things, almost identical projects, so this is a chance to look at things from a different angle,” he said.

Read more: Hacking for the Planet | Fashion & Beauty | Life | Epoch Times


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