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What Exactly is a Hackathon? And What is Open Data?

In an earlier post, we announced the next regional hackathon for Latin America: Developing Latin America 2012 [es]. But it is likely that some readers are not sure what a hackathon is or above all, what it's for.

Martín Onetto of Red Users [es] commented [es] on the origin of the term:

el “Hackathon”, (es un) neologismo compuesto por las palabras “hack” + “marathon”. “Es ‘hacker’ en el sentido originario del término: no el que comete delitos informáticos sino el que es capaz de desarmar y transformar para resolver una tarea compleja”,

the word “Hackathon” is a neologism formed by the words “hack” + “marathon”. It uses “hacker” in the original sense of the word: not someone who commits computer crimes but someone who is able to dismantle and transform a complex task.

Wikipedia in Spanish has an article [es] that offers a good definition of what a hackathon is:

es un término usado en ambiente hacker para referirse a un encuentro de programadores cuyo objetivo es el desarrollo colaborativo de software. Estos eventos pueden durar entre dos días y una semana. El objetivo es doble: por un lado hacer aportaciones al proyecto libre que desee y por otro aprender sin prisas.

it is a term used within the realm of hackers to refer to an event in which programmers get together to collaborate on the development of software. These events can last between two days and a week. The objective is two-fold: on one hand, contribute to the open project that is being created, and on the other hand, learn slowly but surely. [Note: see English-language Wikipedia article for more information.]

There is a great variety of projects to which programmers, or developers, can dedicate their efforts. In fact, there are also distinct types of hackathons, including those which deal with specific types of platforms, such as cellular phones or certain operating systems, or those which develop software using only one programming language or for a particular company.

Imagen de datos.gob.es en Flickr, bajo licencia de Atribución-CompartirIgual 2.0 Genérica (CC BY-SA 2.0) de Creative Commons.

Image from datos.gob.es on Flickr, under Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Unlike the hackathons mentioned earlier, Developing Latin America is dedicated to social issues, such as health, education, public safety, transportation, among others. What you may be asking yourself is, how can developers deal with these issues by making computer programs? Here enters the concept of open data.

And what is open data? Referring again to Wikipedia [es] in Spanish, we find that it is,

una filosofía y práctica que persigue que determinados datos estén disponibles de forma libre a todo el mundo, sin restricciones de copyright, patentes u otros mecanismos de control.1 Tiene una ética similar a otros movimientos y comunidades abiertos como el Software libre, el código abierto (open source en inglés) y el acceso libre (open access en inglés).

philosophy and practice that certain data should be freely available to everyone, without restrictions of copyrightpatents or other mechanisms of control. The goals of the open data movement are similar to other open movements and communities such as free software, open source and open access. [Note: see English-language Wikipedia article for more information.]

The Open Data Handbook, a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation, lists a similar definition:

Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.

In general, when we talk about open data or the opening of data, we are talking about government data, under the concept that the collection and administration of this data is done with public money and therefore it belongs to everyone. This governmental data usually covers almost all public activities to which the government as well as citizens dedicate money.

To find out more about open data, we spoke with Mariano Crowe, hacker and co-director of Escuelab [es], a learning platform and co-development space in Lima, Peru.


Not long ago, David Sasaki, of Omidyar Network, summarized [es] the main characteristics of open data in a post titled “The Eight Main Principles of Open Data (and Hipsters)”: 

- Completo: todos los datos públicos está disponible. Los datos público no contempla datos privados ni limitaciones de seguridad o privilegios.
- Primario: los datos son recolectados en la fuente de origen, con el nivel de granularidad mas alto posible, no en forma agregada ni modificada.
- Oportuno: los datos están disponibles tan rápido como sea necesario para preservar el valor de los datos.
- Accesible: los datos están disponibles para el rango mas amplio de usuarios para el rango mas amplio de propósitos.
- Procesable por maquinas: los datos están estructurados razonablemente para permitir un procesamiento automático.
- No discriminatorio: los datos están disponibles a cualquiera, sin requerir un registro.
- No propietario: los datos están disponibles en un formato sobre el cual ninguna entidad tiene un control exclusivo.
- Libre de licencias: los datos no están sujetas a ningún derecho de autor, patenté, marca registrada o regulaciones de acuerdo de secreto. Razonable privacidad, limitaciones de seguridad y privilegios están permitidos.

- Complete: all public data are available. Public data don't include private data or limitations due to security or privileges.
- Fundamental: the data are collected at the source of origin, with the highest level of granularity possible, not in aggregate or modified.
Opportune: the data are available as quickly as necessary to preserve the value of the data.
- Accessible: the data are available to the widest range of users and for the widest range of purposes.
- Processable by machine: the data are reasonably structured to allow for automated processing.
- Not discriminatory: the data are available to anyone, without requiring registration.
- No owner: the data are available in a format over which no one entity has exclusive control.
- Free of licenses: the data are not subject to copyright, patent, trademark or regulations stemming from secret agreements. Reasonable privacy, security limitations, and privileges are permitted.

AESIC, the Agency for Electronic Government and Information Society of Uruguay, leads the country in these issues, and on part of its website dedicated to open data, the organization comments [es] why we should care:

¿Ud sabe exactamente qué cantidad de dinero de sus impuestos se gasta en alumbrado público o en la investigación del cáncer? ¿Cuál es la ruta más corta, más segura y con vista más linda en bicicleta desde su casa a su trabajo? ¿Y la calidad del aire que respira en el camino? En su región, ¿dónde encontrará las mejores oportunidades laborales y el mayor número de árboles frutales per cápita? ¿Cuándo puede influir en las decisiones legislativas o gubernamentales sobre temas que le preocupan profundamente, y con quién debe hablar?

Do you know exactly how much money from your taxes goes toward public lighting or cancer research? Which bicycle route from your house to your job is the shortest, safest, and with the most beautiful view? And the quality of the air you breathe on the street? In your region, where will you find the best job opportunities and the greatest number of fruit trees per cápita? When can you influence legislative or governmental decisions about issues that profoundly matter to you, and with who can you speak?

Later on, they mention that the use of open data on the part of citizens can benefit citizens themselves, many different institutions and even their own government, and they offer some examples:

- En el área de la transparencia, ¿Adónde va mi dinero? de Gran Betaña, es una aplicación web que muestra cómo el Gobierno gasta los recursos que recauda a través de impuestos. En Dinamarca y Brasil existen aplicaciones donde se puede seguir el proceso de legislación del parlamento.

- El área de información geográfica es una de las más avanzadas, existen múltiples aplicaciones de interés para el ciudadano. Autobuses de la ciudad en tiempo real, de España, permite conocer la ubicación del transporte público en tiempo real y los minutos que le restan al ómnibus para llegar a la próxima parada. OpenStreetMap puede considerarse la “Wikipedia de los Mapas”. Provee datos geográficos gratuitos y de libre disposición para todo el mundo.

- In the area of transportation, Where does my money go? is a British web application that shows how the government there spends the money it collects from taxes. In Denmark [da] and Brazil [pt], there are applications available that allow you to follow the legislative process in parliament.

- The area of geographic information is one of the most advanced, with many applications of interest to citizens. City buses in real time [es], from Spain, allows you to find out the location of public transportation in real time and the number of minutes until the next bus arrives. OpenStreetMap could be considered the “Wikipedia of Maps”. It provides free and unrestricted geographic data for everyone.

More examples of applications developed with open data can be found on this other link [es] from AGESIC, on this link [es] from the Regional Government of Andalusia, and on this link [es] from the Generalitat of Catalonia. In addition, in this post [es] from Ticbeat you will find 10 applications that various people would like developed using open data.

But, what can motivate developers -who normally have high-paying but demanding jobs- to dedicate a part of their free time to continue programming without compensation? To answer this, we return to Mariano:


Many elements have to come together to successfully and effectively work with open data, from a government that has a clear and decided vision to that respect, to a civil society that promotes and disseminates its use. But, in a way, programmers are the key element that make sure these types of initiatives move forward.

Are you a developer? Give your two cents to make the place you live a better place. While reading this article, have you come up with an idea on how to collaborate? Sign up [es] for Developing Latin America and participate!

Original post [es] published on Juan Arellano's personal blog.
The first video in this post was transcribed by ireireireire and translated by Laura Rebollo Quero. The second video was transcribed and translated by Sonia Ordoñez.

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