Bancroft hosts #HackFSM, the first interdisciplinary hackathon at UC Berkeley

By Charlie Macquarie and Mary Elings, Bancroft Digital Collections

In April, The Bancroft Library and the UC Berkeley Digital Humanities Working Group organized #HackFSM, a digital humanities hackathon using the data of the Free Speech Movement digital collections at Berkeley. In preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of the FSM at Berkeley coming up in fall 2014, the event was an opportunity to engage the UC Berkeley community around the materials and history of the movement and align that conversation with the movement’s legacy of open discourse and access to information in new ways for the digital age.

This was the first interdisciplinary, digital humanities hackathon on the Berkeley campus. All participants had to be current UC Berkeley students and had to be members of a team of between two and four participants. Each team was required to include at least one humanist and one programmer (defined by their program of study).

The teams were tasked with creating a compelling web-based user interface for the materials from the FSM digital archive, one of Bancroft’s early digital initiatives. The hackathon teams were provided access to the collections data through an Apache Solr-indexed API which was put together by the UC Berkeley Library Systems Office.

The event kicked off on April 1 when teams gathered or were formed and received API keys to the data. We also had a speaker who framed the time period historically for the participants. The closing event on April 12 offered each team time to present their project and then judges deliberated and announced the winners.

The #HackFSM hackathon was different from traditional hackathons in several ways. First, we extended the traditional compressed 24-48 hours hackathon format to 12 days. This was intended to give teams more time to explore the data and develop their projects more fully.

The expanded timeframe also allowed more opportunity for collaboration between members of each team and was intended to increase participation by students who were not necessarily part of the hackathon community or shied away from the typical compressed format — particularly women. The interdisciplinary teams also had to fulfill another requirement of the hackathon: that the web application designed would enable a researcher to answer a humanities research question, so the teams actually had to learn to communicate across their disciplines, which ended up being very successful.

Teams had access to mentors (academic and industry) throughout the 12 days. At the final event, projects were judged by two panels. One panel assessed the usability, appearance, and value of the interface from a humanist standpoint and another reviewed the quality of the code and the deployability of the tool from a technical point of view. Additionally, each team’s project had to comply with the campus policies for web accessibility and security. Compliance to these criteria was verified by running automated testing tools on each contestant site.

After presentations were completed first place was awarded to the team of Alice Liu, Craig Hiller, Kevin Casey, and Cassie Xiong, and second went to Olivia Benowitz, Nicholas Chang, Jason Khoe, and Edwin Lao. The winning team’s website has been deployed at http://hackfsm.lib.berkeley.edu/. Collectively, we were surprised and pleased by the high-quality of all the projects, both visually and functionally.

Overall, The Bancroft felt the hackathon was a very valuable experience and one we hope to build upon in the near future. It was a highly collaborative and engaging event, both for the students and for us. The event required reaching out across campus and our community, to students, IT, and administrators. The students also felt the interdisciplinary nature of the event was positive for them. They had to learn to talk to one another, teach one another, and build something together. Other feedback we received from the students included their excitement about our materials, as well as the fact that they thought the challenge we presented and having the opportunity to see their site hosted by the library was sufficient reward for participating (but the prizes were also cool).

We look forward to engaging more community around our collections and supporting digital humanities efforts in the future. They say that imitation is sincerest form of flattery; The Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, a fellow UCB institution, has just announced their first hackathon. That is great news.

Mary W. Elings, Head of Digital Collections

Charlie Macquarie,  Digital Collections Assistant

(this text is excerpted and derived from an article written for the Society of California Archivist Newsletter, Summer 2014).

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About bancroftlibrary

The Bancroft Library is the primary special collections library at the University of California, Berkeley. It is one of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States.
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