The next installment in our Community of RHoKstars series is an interview with Bob Lannon, who brought his problem idea to RHoK Philadelphia in December 2011 and worked with a dedicated team at RHoK, and thereafter, to turn his idea into a reality.
Tell us a bit about yourself. (Where do you call home? What keeps you busy during the day? What do you enjoy?)
I'm a native of suburban Philadelphia, but I've lived in the city since 2004. I spend most of my time working, which means scraping and munging data as well as writing Python code to analyze that data and display it in interesting ways. More than anything, I enjoy opportunities to make specialized information understandable to non-specialists. I don't mean even just in a formal setting: I politely butt in to perfect strangers' conversations with factoids a lot. Most of the time, they're not annoyed, haha.
I'd like the work i'm doing to achieve the same thing. More and more often, people have these little robots in their pockets and I see it as my job to make them conduits to information relevant to their immediate environment.
Work aside, I love karaoke, dancing and picking my friends' brains (many of whom are doing really interesting work in a wide range of disciplines, from cooking to woodworking to education and healthcare).
How have you been involved with RHoK?
I was first referred to RHoK by Erika Owens (community manager , Knight-Mozilla OpenNews
) at a Hacks/Hackers Meetup. Hacks/Hackers
is a group that meets to talk about possible advantages that the tech community can offer to people working in journalism. A combination of luck and Philadelphia's uncanny ability to seem like a small town resulted in a good friend of mine, Jim Snavely (mobile developer, Reuters), walking out of an Android Meetup and seeing me at Hacks/Hackers. He stopped in to say hello, and by the end of the discussion that followed, a small group of us decided that my idea for an audio-identification system focused on political campaign advertisements was a great project to take to RHoK.
Two other members of the Hacks/Hackers group, Pam Selle (software engineer, Paperless Post
) and Jake Richter (programming hobbyist in Philadelphia), also joined in by the time the hackathon was underway. Pam had great input as someone with experience in politics and Jake contributed a lot to the design of our public-facing site.
The five of us got to work immediately when RHoK was underway and we kept it up for months afterward, showing off our finished product to interested parties in campaign advertising fact-checking and government transparency. After meeting with a few different organizations, the project found an excellent home at the Sunlight Foundation
, which is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that implements technology aimed at greater government openness and transparency.
The mobile application I'm continuing to develop at Sunlight listens to political campaign advertisements, identifies them and gives the user information about who paid for them. It's planned for release to the Android and Apple app stores this summer, to help voters navigate the claims made during the 2012 presidential and congressional races.
Why does RHoK matter to the world?
The trend towards using advanced technology for social good is not only exciting, it's vital. I think that one thing RHoK does really well is bring concerned citizens and specialists in non-technical areas together with individuals that can build things to help achieve their goals.
That's no small thing. Almost by definition, someone with the training it takes to be a successful technologist is going to come from some level of privilege. Furthermore, their skills can in many cases command high hourly rates. Their volunteer involvement in projects with social import is nothing short of amazing, and I think it has the potential to open a whole world of new opportunities for all involved. RHoK gives these technologists a forum that not only puts them in touch with people who need their services, but also a chance to see that there are venues outside of the traditional for-profit world where their talents are valuable.
Finally, it's really important that RHoK is an international community. Solutions found in one place are often applicable in others. With a global exchange of information and solutions, we have the power to very literally change the world.
Why does RHoK matter to you?
RHoK opened my eyes to a career path that I hadn't even considered previously. As I mentioned, I intend my career to center around enabling the enrichment and dissemination of information that I believe is crucial to the goals of a democratic, humanitarian society.
There is often a divide, however, between individuals who share those goals and the tech community. After all, the headlines in tech reporting are typically centered on the latest gadgetry, slickest new software packages and the dazzling rise of trend-setting start-ups with vaguely defined business value propositions. Less often do we hear about the proverbial rubber meeting road where technical solutions are implemented with real impact on individuals' lives.
At RHoK, I saw non-technical specialists breathing huge breaths of fresh air as technically-skilled volunteers lifted some tremendous burdens from their shoulders. I want to do that every chance I get, now.
Based on your experience with RHoK, do you have any words of wisdom to share with the larger RHoK community?
First and foremost: go in to RHoK with a reasonable expectation of what your final product will be. In most cases, it will be a proof of concept that will lay the foundation for future work. That's no small thing. Often crucial funding and buy-in decisions are made based on tangible (if unrefined) evidence that a solution is possible. I think, in the best case, that those involved with RHoK projects should feel enthusiastic about the hackathon being the START of a great project that you will continue to invest time in after the event.
One other thing: there's a lot of romance in the idea that people can come to an event like RHoK totally naive to the concerns of the people who are looking for help and find an ingenious solution in the 2-3 days over which the event is held. I like that idea. I'm sure it's possible and I'm sure it's legitimately happened that way more than once. I'd like to suggest, though, that being in touch with them in the months leading up to RHoK is what will most dramatically increase the probability of having a focused problem definition at the start of a hackathon and the beginnings of a real solution by the end.
I've seen this in action more than once now, and it works, for at least two reasons (that I can think of). First, technologists and non-technologists have a propensity to baffle each other with their descriptions of the issues involved with a project. For both types of participants, it's often the case that they have assumptions about what can or should be done given their limited understanding of the others' abilities and constraints. Learning each others' points of view is an iterative process. Not until they begin to get down to the real process of planning a solution do they realize that some of these assumptions were unfounded. A communication exchange beforehand could bring these gaps in understanding to light, and avoid investing the precious collaboration time during RHoK itself.
Second, many problems have been solved already, but it's a good idea to test-drive those solutions (with minimal time investment) before exploring them as a group. The open source community has a lot of resources that can jump-start projects like those started at RHoK. It's increasingly likely that there's a piece of software on Github that, with a little hacking, can do exactly what you need to be done. That's not always easy to find, though, and you may want to take some time, before the event, to explore what's out there. It's a pain to work with something that looks perfect only to realize that it doesn't (maybe can't) do this ONE THING that is actually central to the project.
Most of all, be flexible and listen intently to your collaborators. Try to hear exactly where they're coming from, and ask questions if you don't understand. Seriously: ask questions if you don't understand something. Everyone's new to something at RHoK, but everyone's there to make something great, and that can only happen if everyone communicates.