As the final few minutes drew to a close for the first #FreedomHack last weekend, the mood was electric. This was felt both in the open and colorful space of a startup incubator in Washington DC, as well as the more austerely appointed offices of Amnesty International in Mexico City. The winners were about to be announced.
Over 60 hackers and activists had dedicated their weekend to participate in #FreedomHack – a hackathon for good. Working through the night, they developed tools to enable journalists & activists in dangerous areas like Mexico and Syria to safely deliver their stories to the world. The next few minutes would determine who would take home the giant trophies, gain the admiration of their peers, and the collegial envy of the other competitors.
What is a “hackathon”?
For those that have never seen or participated in a “hackathon”, it is an amazing experience that brings together a group of “makers” (usually coders) to spend a short amount of time (usually about 24hrs), trying to develop an entire product or company. Upon completion, their projects are presented on stage, judged, and prizes awarded. Hackathons are held around the world, and many of the tools we use every day were conceived in these 24hr marathons.
However #FreedomHack is quite different from a run-of-the-mill event. The event, came from an unprecedented partnership between tech startups and NGOs and born of a common desire to help the amazing people who put their lives on the line every day to enact change.
The event was created by Cont3nt.com – a startup that built a real-time market for breaking news,and CommunityRED – a non-profit organization that helps create security tools for activists; as well as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Sunlight Foundation, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
In a hackathon-first, the event was held simultaneously in Washington DC, USA & Mexico City, Mexico – with participants present virtually via Skype calls projected in both locations.
This experience connected two groups that almost never meet – foreign activists and journalists on the front lines of fighting for a free press, and US-based developers and innovators from the technology fields.
As many of you may know, journalists and activists in dangerous environments are often targeted and rarely safe. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranks Mexico among the worst places for journalists and netizens, the numbers of those killed, attacked or threatened in the course of their work has skyrocketed since 2010.
In Mexico, reporting within the context of the fight against organized crime has resulted in a culture of fear and self-censorship where incidents of violence perpetrated by criminal networks and Mexican security forces alike go unreported. Journalists and citizen reporters need secure methods to allow them to deliver their stories without fear of retaliation—a vital component of exercising the right to freedom of expression.
Of the participants in DC half were tech and cyber security professionals with skills in writing code; the other half was comprised of journalists and activists that understood and could explain the issues being faced.
Teams were formed with members from both sides of the house, to create the best possible project. From Mexico, activists gave presentations, provided guidance to real-world problems, and served as mentors to the teams throughout the weekend.
Many teams worked through the night to maximize their time on projects. At around 5am the couches and easy chairs were littered with hackers taking a much deserved rest, but most were up and working again by 8am. Then it was a race to finish your video walk-through and practice your pitch while #FreedomHack mentors acted like sounding boards and advisors.
Around 2pm on Sunday it was time for presentations – six judges sat on the panel and others video conferenced from Mexico. Hackers lined up next to the stage as the MCs and organizers – Anton Gelman of Cont3nt.com and Shanua Dilavou of CommunityRED hyped up the audience and the judges introduced themselves.
The presentations kicked off with a bang – a team called “Portkey” (think Harry Potter) created a digital dead drop using a new technology called Near Field Communication (NFC). It would allow journalists and activists under surveillance to leave dead drop messages to each other using little stickers that contained data. The stickers can be placed anywhere and the receiving party would just need to swipe their phone nearby to collect the information without watchers being the wizer.
This presentations was followed by SMS community builders “VozLocal” that enabled any bystanders to send anonymous messages to inform the community of areas or blocks that were currently dangerous – for example if some dangerous people were seen walking into an alley, or if gunshots were heard. The information would be anonymized and delivered to help protect the community.
Next up were two projects created by some of the organizers of the event who did not want to sit idly by while the hackers had all the fun. A mapping visualization of tweets called “Top Citizen Journalist Countries” would query from the Twitter firehose and identify incidences of citizen journalism and breaking news from around the world. Project “Journalists Under Fire” by volunteer and Data Scientist Sean Gonzales crunched the numbers on journalists killed or wounded in the past decade and identified trends not visible with the naked eye.
Team “Activists Sec” was the largest by size with over 10 members – they created an illustrated guide to keeping secure in dangerous environments. Their project explained complex security procedures to activists to make sure that they could actually understand and implement the complex security tools that are required to keep safe.
Another SMS-based project “Northur” enabled activists to find places of shelter in hostile territories by anonymously requesting aid, with the goal of taking activists off the street and getting them help whenever possible.
The event was wrapped up by “Awesome Security” (aka Panic Button) which built project improvements to Amnesty International’s upcoming Panic Button open source project.
The Panic Button is an Android app to be released in the coming months that allows journalists to discretely to notify friends and family if they have been captured or arrested.
Team Awesome Security added much needed improvements to hide the app from the operating system, made it easier to launch, and adding Guardian Mode that protects the activist even if the device is taken away. The new mode enables a journalist to set a timer when going into a potentially dangerous situation, if the timer is not disarmed within a set period of time, the app sends an automatic alert.
Finally, it was time for the judging – and it was a heated debate since all the projects were within a single point of each other. The judging criteria was to rate the projects on a combination of how interesting they were, their technical complexity, and their potential value in the field.
Team “Portkey” took the prize for best original hack, “Security Toolkit” took the trophy for documentation and activism, and “Awesome Security” won the best open-source hack as well as the overall grand prize.
Celebrations continued after judging and before long it was time for team members to return home. But they could return knowing that they had just spent 24 hours to help save lives and help make the world a better, safer place to live.