Guest Blog: The Hackathon

Phoenix Simms is a third year English student. 

The Hackathon, a.k.a. The “Hack-the-Book” event is an event that’s open to students across all departments of Ryerson’s campus. The basic premise is to take the problems of storytelling in the digital age and work with a team for 24 hours straight (or as you prefer, you’re allowed to go home if you need a break at anytime) to ‘hack’ solutions for them. Several complimentary meals were generously served for participants as well.There are several experts/representatives from different companies or projects that propose an idea they want to see realized and groups can either choose one of those experts to work with on their challenge or put forth a challenge of their own that they want to tackle. Some of the representatives that were present at the event were working for Penguin UK, Kobo, Harper Collins, The Walrus, Toronto Public Library and Ryerson’s Library as well. It was an excellent chance to network and get firsthand professional feedback on how the publishing and storytelling industry is evolving.

The group I ended up working with was as diverse as they were enthusiastic: there was me (an English BA third year student), a documentary grad student, three new media students and later on that night a student from the disabilities and accessibility studies program joined us–the first of her program to participate in a Hackathon! We chose to work with Lindsay Mattick (author and former Ryerson grad) and her associate Hoss Gifford (a digital media guru) on a challenge to create an interactive prototype for an exhibition experience that could accessed internationally. The exhibit it was for is being planned for Lindsay Mattick’s story of her grandfather Harry Colebourn, the man who found and befriended the black bear who inspired A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Among the challenges of creating an international exhibit experience were to address the heart of the story of lifelong friendship between a man and a bear in a way that everyone could relate to and doing so without explicitly referencing Winnie the Pooh.

The result after 24 hours of nearly nonstop work (and some dancing too—a popular stress-reliever, just check out the #hackthebook hashtag on Twitter), ended up being an online digital trunk layered with data-rich mementos that eventually be a completely interactive and immersive experience. This online trunk of memories would give the online exhibit goers a chance to access Lindsay Mattick’s priceless artifacts of her grandfather’s story without damaging any of said artifacts. People would be able to retain a sense of preciousness while being able to listen to voice overs of important journal entries, rummage through old photos and occasionally stumble across easter eggs (like animated black and white photographs and related videos). We also made a scrapbook that would spool up at the end of the experience with a voice over asking them if they would like to contribute a memory of a close childhood friend (whether real or imaginary). Exhibition participants could then choose to share how that relationship impacted their lives in various social media formats and with the option of making their entry only accessible to them or to the public.

Other Hackathon projects included: Whiteboard (a new way to access textbooks in an online environment), interactive Walrus news articles that could be continuously updated based on vetted feedback, and two projects dealing with how to incorporate live social media interaction (attached to Stephen Fry’s newest autobiography) and static social media as an enriching visual and supplementary component of author Charles Foran’s upcoming novel, Planet Lolita.

The Hackathon Hack-the-Book event is a great way to apply the skills you’ve been honing as an English/Arts degree student. Particularly English though, because we work with stories on a regular basis. Whether you have a penchant for creative writing, academic writing, or researching, any or all of the skills you have as an English student will come into play at an event like this. I found that although I didn’t have much in the way of digital skills I could contribute to the project, I could discuss any story-related material and help organize and keep track of all the tasks we had to complete over the course of the event. I think the greatest opportunity of the event though was to get to know and work with students from other programs. I learned a ton from them, gained different perspectives on how to approach problem-solving for a creative project and learned just how much a group can get done in the space of 24 hours. I’d recommend this to any English student to try out next year. Not only will you get to put your skills to the test and see where your strengths lie, you’ll get to meet new friends and collaborate on a project that will propose new paths for narrative-based industries.

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