Adnaan Wasey on Re-Inventing the Hackathon

by |

Adnaan Wasey, Director of POV Digital, speaking at the POV Hackathon 2, that took place January 12-13, 2013.

Back in August 2012, POV hosted its first Hackathon as part of an effort to get filmmakers and coders in the same room to “re-invent the documentary for the web.” Soon after the first Hackathon concluded I spoke with Adnaan Wasey, the Director of POV Digital. He told me about the impetus behind the POV Hackathon, how documentary can be conceptualized on the web and why filmmakers should be thinking about new ways of monetizing their content.

The following has been edited down from a longer conversation.

Rahul Chadha: First, tell me about what the inspiration behind the Hackathon.

Adnaan Wasey, POV: There are a few inspirations. From one perspective, it’s a continuation of the work that POV’s been doing essentially from its start to engage and interact with viewers — participating in chat rooms, creating multimedia, online-only documentaries — one of those projects won a Webby Award a few years ago. It’s just always been in POV’s purview — how do we create “high-impact television?”

This is what is happening today: The web is a major part of how people interact with content. If you think about what the web is, it’s nonfiction. There’s video, audio, tweets, Facebook posts — this is all nonfiction. Nonfiction is powering the web, why can’t the web power nonfiction?

The other perspective is thinking about how work gets done. Hackathons are common in software development. It’s also becoming a more in vogue now since people have seen Google and Facebook and how they’ve been doing it. The Facebook newsfeed actually came out of an internal hackathon. Every company with an API says let’s have a hackathon, come hack our obscure technology to see if something comes out of it. They’re doing it to propel their technology, or for marketing purposes, essentially.

Chadha: Was there a particular hackathon model that you used in designing the POV Hackathon?

Wasey: A hackathon is usually 100 developers getting together with a standard API, or a standard data set, and saying, figure out what to do with this. We’re saying, you’ve got 30 hours: here’s a project, here are some potential technologies, do what you can with it! It was a little less structured, and there was no competition aspect to it. We said early on that there would be no prize and no winner. So I’m taking inspiration from everything. But I’m also drawing on my personal experience in developing and working on teams and seeing how work gets done, and how it doesn’t get done. I don’t know the stuff that works, but I know the stuff that doesn’t work [laughing].

Chadha: Can you take me through the thought process in selecting the teams? They all came from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and I think the Aatsinki team was the only one I considered to come from a more traditional, linear documentary film background. I am wondering what you were looking for in prospective teams.

Wasey: I think it just goes to show the range of — and a cross-section of — the “documentary” content that’s out there. The most interesting projects that have the most potential online are the ones where people are not thinking in terms of a 90-minute documentary. Aatsinki was the rare case where there was a documentary that was more or less completed. But filmmaker Jessica Oreck came with the film and said, “I’ve got some other ideas about what I want to do with it.” A lot of people did apply [saying], “I’ve got a completed documentary and I want to make a website that markets it.” That’s the wrong kind of mindset.

I think the most interesting projects are the ones where people don’t exactly know what they’re doing, but they have a really clear vision of what they want it to be. That’s where the opportunity comes in to play matchmaker.

Chadha: My impression was that it was really hard to find developers and coders, but it seems like you didn’t really have that experience. Is that true? And if so, why do you think that was?

Wasey: Can any filmmaker find a developer? The answer is that it’s still hard. You’ve got to work your network, you’ve got to ask around, you’ve got to cold call the people you know have done it in the past. It’s tricky because web development is not monolithic. There are people who have specific skills within that field — just asking anybody who’s a graphic designer to make your website is not going to work. Some people are starting to understand the sub-discipline of video connected with the web — there are very few. Those groups of developers may not be affordable.

Maybe there’s some cachet or something fun about participating in a hackathon, knowing that you’re not going to be dealing with a client for months and months — all of the non-fun things that happen when you enter into a contract or long-term relationship. The response from developers was surprising. I thought I would have to reach out to them a lot more. But they really understood what we were doing, and the ones who were interested in it really gravitated to it.

Chadha: You said that sometimes filmmakers are not going to be able to afford the hiring of developers and designers. It seems like there’s a handful of funding or support for these kind of projects such as Sundance Institute and Tribeca Film Institute. Will funding sources for this kind of work grow over time?

Wasey: The number of people with the skills and interest is going to grow naturally. We can lament the lack of infrastructure surrounding new media or we can try and inspire people. Tribeca is getting into exhibition [of new media projects] with its festival next year. Work is going to gravitate to the web and funding will come with it. It seems like it’s building, so I’m optimistic.

Chadha: What did you think was the biggest obstacle the Hackathon teams faced?

Wasey: All of the filmmakers came in without a clear idea of how the developers worked. Some filmmakers may have come in with wireframes, they may have come in with documents about what they thought the thing would be, but as soon as they met with developers and understood the process of how they work and how things get done they realized, “My vision still makes sense, but these micro-details are wrong!”

Chadha: What do you think the first step is for a filmmaker who’s interested in this stuff but doesn’t really have any concept of coding or programming?

Wasey: I think what [filmmakers] should be doing is focusing on their art and their creativity. It’s a question of, how do you be more creative? There are many answers to that. I think the wrong answer is to learn how to code. The right answer is — to use a little bit of a hackneyed phrase — think outside the box. What would suit the content of your project best?

Chadha: You had an impromptu discussion with one team member about potentially monetizing their project. How important do you think that is for filmmakers to keep in mind as they’re developing these projects?

Wasey: In the field of new media and documentary I see a huge potential for creativity. At the same time I’m really curious about the commercial potential. Art and entertainment aren’t separable in a marketplace. I think it’s really interesting to talk about not just the intensely creative work that can come out of filmmakers working with developers but also the potential to make a little money off of it. People do pay for content… I think it’s just a matter of somebody inventing something that a lot of people would be interested in using.

Chadha: What was the thing that surprised you the most about the Hackathon?

Wasey: The way the Hackathon was structured, it was filmmakers first, story first. I was afraid going in that the ball would be too much in the filmmakers’ court and they would be driving all of the conversations. But it did surprise me that it became a collaboration almost instantly with all of the teams. It wasn’t that the filmmakers were telling the developers what they wanted, but that they were listening to the developers and going along with the developers’ ideas.

Chadha: One of the things that intrigued me was how fundamentally different the projects were. It seemed like the Living Los Sures team was more interested in producing a tool, which is something I hadn’t seen or considered. Jessica [The Aatsinki Season] was repurposing her material — she was recutting her footage and substantially changing it by adding narration, which is very different from the aesthetic of her film. StoryCorps was interesting because the heart of their content was audio, and Feed Me a Story was talking about potential revenue streams. Data Docs re-conceptualized the static news story by pulling in dynamic data. Everybody was having really interesting, but fundamentally different, conversations.

Wasey: That was partially by design, of course. To find interesting people that crossed over [into] different areas that could still be considered “documentary.” And then in terms of technology as well. One was an app, one was audio, one used motion graphics and one was a completed documentary.

Chadha: From my perspective it seemed really important to hammer home the idea of the “minimum viable product,” and that the timeframe was constrained. That seemed to keep people on track and sheer away potential feature creep.

Wasey: A software developer knows the idea of feature creep — “Here’s a new idea, let’s put it in!” [A minimum viable product] is a minimum feature set that shows off the things you intended to do. There’s no reason to add to it. If you add a feature on top of it, you’re just spending time on something that isn’t core to what your product is supposed to be. The filmmakers embraced that idea and started to recognize, “Oh, this is outside of our original feature set. Let’s put that on the back burner while we do the more important things.” It’s something that requires a lot of discipline to be able to do. Even professional developers have this problem, where they love working on something so much they want to put a bunch of stuff into it, which is the wrong instinct.

One of the other things that was interesting was that people essentially showed up for nothing. I mean, there’s no conference, there’s no workshop. They’re just coming to work. And theoretically they could have done that at home, but they chose to do it in the office. There was nothing that we were doing that people couldn’t do at home. We just gave them a deadline. I just think that people learn the most by doing. I also feel like you don’t learn from something until it’s done. So that was the structure: learn by doing, have something done by 6 p.m. on Sunday.

To learn more about the upcoming POV Hackathon 3 (April 13-14, 2013) and updates on submitting to POV Hackathon 4, subscribe to POV’s documentary blog or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!

Rahul Chadha
Rahul Chadha
Rahul Chadha is a Brooklyn-based journalist and filmmaker interested in the convergence of coding and documentary arts. He is a past participant of several documentary programs, including the UnionDocs Collaborative and the Maysles Institute's Filmmakers Collaborative.