The Importance Of FartBanana And Other Lessons From A News Hack Day

BBC Labs newsHACK

Having spent two days in a theatre come town hall come hack space with 150 developers, journalists, designers and students here are three thoughts regarding hacking, developing and the future of news.

Play to win or play to learn

Whether it is a one day hack day or a two, three or four day hackathon, there is never enough time to do something truly innovative. Don’t get me wrong, I love hack days but this is a sad fact that is better known beforehand. Hack days are meant to be shallow. It is about mashups and remixing. Organisers want something simple with a clear output which they can easily implement and so say “look, this is what we got for all the effort we put in”. Disruption does not take place at hack days.

Which is why you should play to learn and not play to win. I was on the Times Digital team at newsHACK and we won our category “Best Journalism Tool”. This was despite the fact that we built proof of concept prototypes for an incredibly complex and difficult to implement concept. The overall winners were the FT team who took Dictionary of Numbers and made it more customised to the user. Clear, simple and easy to implement. That was the reason the judges gave for awarding them the overall prize. Interestingly, we were told that our hack was the most hotly debated amongst the judges.

There was a 4:3 split in terms of judges’ background. The majority were from a digital management position, three had strong editorial backgrounds. I believe the debate was caused by editorial backing our project and digital backing the FT. I also believe they were right to choose the FT. Our hack consisted of natural language processing with machine learning and a gamification skin to crowd source the training of the algorithm. It was ambitious, too ambitious to win the hack day game.

But we didn’t set out to win, we set out to challenge ourselves and push each other to gain new experience in skills, which we couldn’t afford to do in a working environment. Which is why, I feel, we won. We got the most out of the two day sprint.

It’s a team sport

My favourite moment of newsHACK was the look in our designer, Mario Cameira‘s eye, when our developer, Aendrew Rininsland, was showing him how to edit the CSS from the Drupal instance he spun the night before. By the way, Aendrew should get a prize for the quickest build of a Drupal site. Everyone from our team gave 150% and tried new things, and better yet, came back with a list of new things they want to do for taking the project forward. We worked so hard to realise our idea and not just to win. We wanted to show how machine learning can be applied to news. It was a rather lofty challenge but in the end, the news hacks and hackers running the show at the BBC, Sky, Guardian and FT got it.

My approach for a hack day is to imagine the most ambitious, the most innovative hack and see how far we get to realising it. It is not a winning formula, in fact it is a losing formula. But it gets every team member thinking and contributing their imagination and expertise. It pushes the boundary for everyone and brings to the fore the collective creative paths we can pursue. We are a new team at The Times with relatively little combined experience in the news world. By being recognised amongst a large audience of digitally forward media houses, we were punching well above our weight. What I’ve learnt is that playing to learn results in a better outcome for the team and for each member individually, than playing to win.

Never underestimate the importance of FartBanana


FartBanana was a hack presented at It consisted of two electroluminescent wires each connected to a banana skin that when in contact makes a fart noise. It was hilarious to behold. It was absolutely useless but added so much to the event. Every time I think of the inventor with black rotting banana skins in his sitting room making fart noises it brings a smile to my face. So never underestimate the power and importance of whimsy. I think if news application teams had outbreaks of spontaneous whimsy every now and again it would add to the overall productivity and team moral. Whimsy as a management tool, think about it.

I would like to thank BBC News Labs for their monumental effort in getting over 150 news keen hacks and hackers fed, watered and up on stage presenting projects in two days. Also, hats off to the Times Digital team Aendrew Rininsland, Joseph Stashko, Mario Cameira and Matt Taylor.

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