Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend Build the News 2, a hackathon promoted by The Times where journalists and programmers have the chance to meet up in order to produce digital journalism projects.
Our MA Interactive Journalism team Formula from City University London got a Special Commendation for a bookmark service we developed. The solution aims to help readers save their spot when reading long articles in a mobile device.
I was thrilled with the achievement. The winner team at the Student Category had two professional journalists and their idea was impressive. They developed an alternative commenting platform designed to engage readers in the editorial decision-making process.
For those considering taking part in the next events, here are some of the lessons I learnt from this experience:
Plan your idea in advance
My team was just so excited about Build the News that we did lots of meetings. LOTS. There were moments when it felt exhausting to spend hours and hours discussing ideas, but it did helped us.
When the hackathon started, we kind of had a route to follow. It saved us time, different from some teams that only had the opportunity to brainstorm at the event.
Know the problem you are trying to solve
Your problem is your compass: focus on what you are trying to solve and this will keep you on track. When the hackathon started, we weren’t sure if our bookmarking idea was strong enough. We then decided to bring new options to the table. That was just a mess!
We were lucky enough though to have been asked at the very beginning by a member of The Times what was the problem we were trying to solve. That was the tip we needed.
As we knew what problem we would like to tackle [people losing their place in a long form article and unable to come back to it later], we could start working on the solution.
Have a simple and feasible idea
Three days before the hackathon, we had a provocative class about digital journalism projects with Adam Tinworth at City University. The tutor introduced us to the concept of “Agile Digital”, a “build and test” approach for digital projects.
In this sense, a digital project is always beta. It starts small and it evolves according to the learnings from the beta project.
Our main learning here was: don’t try developing the most innovative piece ever or inventing the wheel. Instead, prefer a simple solution for a clear problem.
Bring together a team whose players have different skills
I was lucky enough to be part of a great team. Each player had a unique set of skills that combined were crucial to the development of the project.
Hamza Ali was the creative mind. Krystina Shveda was the one making the hard questions. Ben Jackson had the esthetic eyes. Alison Benjamin, our developer, had the technical skills to bring our idea to life. I was the one trying mediating the conflicts so we could achieve a common result.
If we were all developers, or all creatives, or all designers, our team wouldn’t work.
Find a developer way in advance
Your project won’t go far without a developer as programmers are those with the technical skills to bring an idea to life.
We found Alison Benjamin only one week before Build the News and how glad we are to have her on board with us. Without her, we would showcase a concept, there wouldn’t be any prototype.
Listen, listen, listen
If you are trying solving a problem, it is essential to know what people’s problems are. As a preparatory work for the hackathon, we created a survey to listen to readers. We wanted to know what was the hardest thing when reading long articles in smartphones and tablets.
The inputs collected helped us to be precise in the solution we were prototyping. It has also provided us with solid arguments when pitching our idea and presenting the project.
That is it. If you would like to know how our weekend was, check out our Tumblr http://formulabuildsthenews.tumblr.com. We were updating it live at the hackathon.
And remember: have fun!