Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Tale of Two Hackathons

Hackathon TLV 2013
Hackathon TLV 2013 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Israel)
It was the best of times ... when due to a generous grant from WM.NL I was able to participate in the 2013 Mediawiki hackathon in Amsterdam. Hackathons are amazing. Regular hackathons in TLV are highly competitive but open source hackathons are incredible. There are unbelievable  levels of energy in these events and opportunities to reach out to very large numbers of participants. When Hackathons include teaching sessions they reduce the learning curves associated with learning new technology - an ever increasing hurdle to participation in FLOSS projects. If the hackathon sessions are taped they can be easily edited and become a powerful method for transferring institutional knowledge locked in the minds of experienced contractors. Once these videos are released they can be combined with tutorials and used for self-instruction by new hackers.

Hackathon TLV 2013
Hackathon TLV 2013 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Israel)
As the 2103 hackathon was taking place in Amsterdam another Mediawiki hackathon was taking place in Tel Aviv. While these were going on the two events could not be any different. In, Amsterdam many of the participants had been to three or four such events. In Tel Aviv, only about one or two of the attending hackers had worked on MediaWiki before. The Amsterdam event had a number of lectures and a large amount of funding. The Tel Aviv event had no lectures planned and was run on a very small budget. The Amsterdam event was attended by international hackers - while the TAU event was strictly a local one.

 stroopwafels, a Dutch specialty that has
something of a cult status
at Wikimedia events.
Sebastiaan ter Burg
In Amsterdam and in a similar event taking place in Hong Kong, many if not most of the Hackathon participants were Mediawiki Foundation employees and contractors. Since WMF is to a certain extent a virtual organization - this was a rare opportunity for team members to meet and work together. So the Amsterdam event was split into five or six separate spaces where different groups of contractors sequestered themselves from the volunteer developers. Noticeable by its absence was the ops team in Amsterdam and a number of "Secret session" in the Hong Kong events.

Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam
Wikimedia Hackathon 2013, Amsterdam (Photo credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg)
WMF hackathon have two levels of participation - paid and volunteer with two levels of hotels - private and six to a room then it is no surprise that many WMF hackers consider these hackathons as an opportunity for WMF staff to travel to exotic locations, get drunk, fraternise while ignoring new developers and volunteers whose input is already ignored year round.  While this is a product of the WMF travel allowance policies, like the stroopwafels, it has become  a lamented element of the  created

Hackathon TLV 2013
Hackathon TLV 2013 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Israel)
Chapters consider these events as significant outreach opportunities. Like other outreach activities hackathons must be planned in a way that is conducive to estimate their merit from a utilitarian point of view by the group most interested in their success.  However currently there is no common practice to check the impact of WMF-sponsored hackathons.

Buggie, mascot of Bugzilla
Buggie, mascot of Bugzilla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've asked Wikipedia's newly established PED team to help plan future hackathons in a more scientific way. With the hope of identifying how to best use the budget for this type of events and to check how we can best reach the goals of improving MediaWiki software without million dollar spendings.

Today I've started the first step in doing this work - and this is the collection of code contributions to
Mediawiki's git repository. I hope to follow this up with statistics derived from this dataset. However the git repository in just one aspect of the system.
Other pieces of this puzzle are the Gerrit repository and the Bugzilla database, the Mediawiki wiki, Mailing lists, Labs  and the new tool-labs server. However while these content management systems are accessible via HTTP they are not so easily managed as git.

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