Herdict Technical Director Mike King and I attended the first (annual?) EU Hackathon held last week in Brussels, Belgium. This event, sponsored by Google and Skype, was an opportunity to educate members of European Parliament about Internet censorship, filtering, and the need for transparency. It was also an opportunity for 54 programmers to demonstrate the transparency-enhancing projects that they could develop in only 23 hours.
The results were incredible and thrilling. The “hackers” came to Brussels from places as far as Denver and as near as Antwerp – 17 countries in all. Some knew a lot about censorship and Internet metrics, while others were simply eager to learn. However, all of the teams developed creative new ways to think about the problems that we at Herdict are so concerned about.
The hackers were divided into two tracks: (1) Internet Quality, and (2) Global Transparency. In the first track, the hackers were tasked with developing new ways to measure, educate people about, and improve network quality. Those in the latter category were asked to develop programs that would add greater transparency to the issues surrounding Internet censorship. One winning project in each track would win € 5,000. I’m not very good with currency conversions, but based on what I paid to get a Starbucks coffee in Brussels, I’m guessing it’s close to one million dollars!
Good programs need good data, and there was no shortage of that. We worked hard over the past few weeks to make sure that they could access Herdict data through our APIs or a CSV file (you don’t have to be a hacker to use them – they are publicly available! Query API, Plugin API, and CSV). In addition to our data, they could also use MLab’s network quality data, Google’s transparency reports, OpenNet Initiative country profiles, and pretty much anything else they could get their hands on.
After 23 hours of frantic Red Bull-fueled programming, the hackers’ projects were judged by a panel that included representatives from ONI, Google’s Transparency Team, MLab, EU regulators, and both me and Mike. It was a lot of fun for us to see what everyone worked on, and the decisions were quite difficult. In part it was difficult because the projects were fascinating, but in part it was because the agenda allotted only one hour for judging – something that ended up taking four hours!
In the end, we selected two projects that I really enjoyed. On the Global Transparency track, the winning team was UN-Team, with Sven Clement, Stefan Wehrmeyer, and Hauke Gierow. Not only was their project great, but it used Herdict data! Yea!
UN-Team created an educational game called “Beat the Censor” (playable here) that teaches players about the mechanics of censorship, filtering, and circumvention. In the game players are asked to connect a hypothetical user with a site that user wants to visit. The player connects the country of the “user” with the site server location by drawing a line over a map. When Herdict data indicates that a given site-country pair might be blocked, the game says “Access Denied” and explains why that site might be blocked in that country. Although simple, it provides an interactive mechanism for teaching people about DDoS attacks, IP-filtering, and other mechanisms of censorship. We hope that they’ll keep working on the game!
The winner on the other track was Team Ferioli, comprised of Federica Cau, Pasquale De Luna, and Niccola Ferioli. I’m not an expert on Internet quality metrics, but I really liked how their project made it easy to see connections between Internet quality data and other regional statistics through visual data overlays.
Overall, it was a great event, and I’m glad it brought focus to important issues around Internet transparency.