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Honoring Spirit and Idealism of Aaron Swartz at Memorial Hackathon

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, November 11 2013


After Aaron Swartz's death on January 11, 2013, activists around the world gathered and held spontaneous hackathons in his honor. They were informal and lacked central organization, which was fine at the time, but months later friends and colleagues of Swartz's wanted to know what had happened at those events and if any of the participants would be interested in another one. The Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathon began at Friday, November 8—on what would have been Swartz's 27th birthday—in New York City, as well as in 19 other cities around the world, from Amsterdam to Zagreb.

While many New York City participants tackled problems that had been of specific interest to Swartz, others were encouraged to work on their own projects in the spirit of Swartz's passion.

The memorial event in San Francisco began with a reception at the Internet Archive, with talks from Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier foundation, and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, among others.

Ethan Zuckerman opened the hackathon at the MIT Media Lab.

The New York City Hackathon, which began at 6 p.m. in the old Pfizer pharmaceutical plant in Brooklyn, was organized by Robert Ochshorn, a friend of Noah Swartz, Aaron's younger brother. A mild-mannered and soft-spoken leader, Ochshorn said he had looked up to Swartz, and had always expected to get to know him better.

Announcing the event, Swartz's younger brother Noah wrote:

In January, after nearly two years of government prosecution and harassment, my brother Aaron Swartz died. Aaron was eclectic and prolific in his activism. In the wake of recent events, we especially feel the loss of his unique brand of activism. It is not just that we now have one less voice in the chorus, or even that we lost such a unique voice. We've lost a tireless activist, and a central motivator, someone who could make us seriously question the morality of our actions and show us how to do better. I want to host events around the world to bring together those of us who are fighting to change things, and perhaps to ignite others with a spark from Aaron's flame. Let's spend a weekend together to be, as Aaron would say, part of Team Impact.

Ochshorn explained that they picked Swartz's birthday, rather than the anniversary of his death, because he and the other organizers worldwide were not interested in turning Swartz into a martyr. He also said that, while many in New York City and elsewhere would be working on projects Swartz had “literally begun,” that it was more important for people to apply his “idealism and energy” to their own interests.

Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive and a friend of Swartz's, said a few words at the start of the hackathon on Friday.

“My last words to him were 'I love you,' which is good," said Scott. "He was a really special kid in many ways. In other ways he was like a lot of people who I'd meet.

“Sometimes there's a sense, there was a real sense for the first few days of 'Now we're screwed, never going to have another person like this' but the fact is there's a spirit he was part of and so part of these things is to bring that spirit back and to keep it alive.”

One of the attendees brought a DIY bookscanner to the hackathon. Semi-functional, it needed some tweaking to be maximally effective. A bookscanner, which can scan a 400-page book in under 30 minutes without bending the binding, normally costs $10,000 but the DIY version at the hackathon costs only $500 plus two additional Canon cameras. A couple programmers worked on an Android app that could wirelessly control the two Canon cameras, which were, upon arrival, taped to the structure of the book scanner. The previous mechanism was a bicycle brake that, when squeezed, pulled two finger-shaped levers down to hit the cameras simultaneously.

Ochshorn wrote a program that can quickly clean up the photographs, convert them to PDFs and collate them in a semi-automatic way. Before, the owner of the book scanner—an activist and lawyer who works at Wikipedia—had had to collate them manually.

Thomas Levine, a data scientist, had previously collected open government data sets from 100 governments around the world. On closer inspection, he found that many links to data sets were dead. If they had once led somewhere useful, that was no longer the case. At the hackathon, he worked with another developer on the beginning of a program that could trawl through that existing database of open data sites and identify which links were live and which were dead. It could be another way to judge the effectiveness of a government's open data program.

Participants (and, I'm sure, newly interested parties) can continue collaborating and supporting each other on a hackpad and in monthly calls.