Knight Fellow Sets Stage for First Hacks/Hackers Chapter in Colombia

Apr 272012
  • Attendees sign in at the inaugural meeting to form a Hacks/Hackers chapter in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Ronnie Lovler)

  • El Tiempo social media editor Renata Cabrales joins others as they arrive for the meeting. (Photo by Ronnie Lovler)

  • Knight International Journalism Fellow Ronnie Lovler talks with local restaurant owner and meeting attendee Tiffany Kohl. (Photo by Miriam Forero)

  • Chrys Wu, a New York City-based Hacks/Hackers organizer, speaks to the group via Skype while Knight International Journalism Fellow Ronnie Lovler moderates the discussion. (Photo by Miriam Forero)

  • An attentive audience during the inaugural meeting to form a Hacks/Hackers chapter in Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Natalia Gomez Carvajal)

  • Attendee Luis Hernando Aguilar suggests a potential Hacks/Hackers project during the meeting. (Photo by Natalia Gomez Carvajal)

  • Knight Fellow Ronnie Lovler and Colombian journalist José Luis Peñarredonda discuss next steps after the event. (Photo by Natalia Gomez Carvajal)

Journalists and software developers in Colombia came together in late April to set the stage for establishing the first chapter of Hacks/Hackers in this country. I took the initiative to get this started as part of the work I am doing there as a Knight International Journalism Fellow. In the last year, I have been hearing a lot of buzz about getting people together “around the intersection of journalism and technology,” which is what Hacks/Hackers is all about.

Just three years old, Hacks/Hackers came into being as a way to bring together “hacks” – a word journalists sometimes use to describe themselves – and “hackers,” or the developers who work with codes.

But what does this really mean? For me, it is about information sharing and realizing that great minds do not necessarily think alike, but definitely can collaborate. So my “great idea” combined with your “great idea” can end up in the development of a totally new “great idea” that might never have occurred to a developer or journalist working on his or her own. The collaboration can result in the creation of new tools and innovation for media.

Hacks/Hackers kicked off in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2009 and worldwide is now 10,000 members strong, not counting Bogota. It seemed to me that if this could be done in San Francisco, London and Buenos Aires, there was no reason we couldn’t do it in Bogota.

So co-organizer Renata Cabrales, social media editor at ICFJ partner El Tiempo, and I got busy. We recruited people over coffee, at dinner, by attending other events and chatting up likely prospects or by asking for a few minutes of time to make a quick pitch. And we sent out e-mails.

We had more than 30 people show up for this first meeting – including local web developers, social media experts, journalists, representatives of several NGOs, academics and a couple of people who were just curious. We also had some sincere regrets from people who promise to show for our next meeting, already scheduled for the last week in May.

And I will say, when people started walking in the door – on time and ready to go – I was ecstatic. We played to a packed house. Chrys Wu, a founder and organizer of Hacks/Hackers in New York, who herself is both a hack and a hacker, joined us via Skype to give us background. Colombian journalist José Luis Peñarredonda, who is also a hacker, talked briefly about data visualization and how it can be used.

Perhaps the best dynamics came toward the end. In an open exchange during the last half hour of our meeting, I asked for ideas about what kinds of projects we might do. Suggestions included developing a crowd-sourced map of environmental problems in Colombia; using data visualization to bring information from different sources to one multi-layered platform; providing communications assistance to an already ongoing project to map flooding incidents, a never-ending problem in Colombia; a program to make public information from the Bogota mayor’s office easily accessible online; and finally, a hackathon, an event where developers and others get together for an intensive session to work on a to-be-determined project.

Right now, just ideas…but a few months from now when Bogota’s Hacks/Hackers chapter comes online, who knows. I am also excited about the possibility of perhaps laying the groundwork for more Hacks/Hackers chapters in other Colombian cities. A day before the Bogota meeting, I was in Manizales, in Colombia’s coffee country, to offer a journalism workshop. Of course, I talked about what I was doing in Bogota, and Manizales is ready to jump on the Hacks/Hackers bandwagon.

But if you ask me, the best outcome from this first Bogota session was the plan for another meeting on May 29, a date that the journalists and developers promptly put into their calendars. So Hacks/Hackers, stay tuned. Bogota is coming.