I arrived at Hot Hacks in Toronto with a wicked cough and sore back from the inverted sofa bed I slept on the night before. Ready to hack.
The Mozilla office was bright and airy, a la a San Francisco start-up, filled with coffee and an extensive selection of tasty snacks. No time was wasted. The international group of 25 filmmakers and engineers circled up to share a bit about ourselves, then we quickly broke into our groups to start the brainstorming. The Immigrant Nation team (myself, producer Kate Mclean, and technologist Bailey Smith) was paired with Mozilla developer Scott Downe, and we took the first two hours to figure out a plan of attack.
From the get-go we knew that a process of triage had to occur. We decided to drop the geo-location element of the piece, as well as the page where users will watch films, and focus on ‘The Wave’, which would visualize immigration data and give users a chance to tell their own story. We would also work on the Facebook element to enable users to access their images, and Immigrant Nation to access the user’s data. I asked Scott, “So, do you think all of this is possible in two days?” Scott replied, “I think so. It depends. We’re going to need help.” And then we were off.
Scott started working on The Wave, figuring out how to visualize the immigration data we brought (from the U.S. Census Bureau), and Bailey began working through the Facebook element. I had never witnessed the process of coding before, and it quickly became apparent that it is a series of many small victories. As soon as each problem is solved, another presents itself, and each obstacle can be solved in myriad different creative ways. The collaborative element of the experience also quickly emerged. When Scott had a question, he walked over to a colleague and got an answer—when we needed an extra hand to implement the ambitious set of goals we had, multiple people stepped in to help us out. It was truly a group effort, and the end product could not have emerged without the help of many.
The vision for the future of the project is to have users populate the different Waves from each country with their personal immigration stories comprised of photos, video, and text — but this exercise would be much more simplistic. Since we wouldn’t be able to store users stories for this exercise, Kate and I decided to build out the waves of two countries, Mexico and Japan, with photos and text outlining key points of history. We researched a few flashpoints in the histories of Japanese and Mexican immigration to the United States, culled photographs and wrote descriptions of each point of interest. We originally thought about including text on the Wave, but after sage advice from Ben Moskowitz from Mozilla, we opted to record the text as voice over. The day was quickly over, and we found ourselves back at the hotel, midnight rapidly approaching, recording the voiceover into GarageBand on my laptop, using the microphone on a pair of iPhone earbuds. Truly a hack!
We entered Day Two with a semi-working Wave, tweaky Facebook functionality, and a bunch of raw media. Scott mentioned, “This could take one day… or one week.”
All of the pieces were in various stages of construction, and the aesthetic design elements hadn’t been started — these would come last. “Lets get the thing working, then we can make it look pretty,” said Scott.
Time quickly ticked away as the functionality was refined and basic design pieces were thrown in. This wasn’t the time for new ideas or deviations from the plan — We were going in one direction and it was going to work or it wasn’t. The last four hours was a sequence of Scott periodically looking up at the clock, “We’ve got three hours. I think we’re gonna be OK… Two hours, OK… We’ve got an hour, it’s gonna work.”
We combined all of the pieces in the last hour, and the end product hints at what the finished project might include.
A few instructions if you want to check out the prototype:
- Use Chrome. (we didn’t have time to convert all the media to .webm)
- Use a fast connection (I know, I know).
- If anything doesn’t work, use the refresh button and back button to navigate.
- When you tell your story, pretend to be from Mexico or Japan and you will see a more fleshed out Wave.
I think of this prototype as a starting point for the beginning of what could be. The biggest takeaway from Hot Hacks was the generation of many new ideas, and clarification of old ideas. Now, we have a much better sense of where and how to start the construction of the project, as well as a clearer idea of how the different parts fit together. Hot Hacks has brought Immigrant Nation from pure concept to something much more tangible. Although the future is not definite in any way, and the path to ‘success’ is not even defined, I’m energized and excited to see where Immigrant Nation will go.
Theo Rigby is the director of the Student Academy Award®-winning documentary Sin País (Without Country), an exploration of one family’s complex and emotional journey involving deportation that will air on POV this summer.
This post was originally published on the POV blog (pbs.org/pov/blog).