Programmers hold Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathons worldwide

Originally published in Open Media Boston by Tate Williams (Staff), Feb-05-13

BOSTON/Kenmore Square - The reactions to the death of prominent computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz have ranged from sadness, to calls for investigation, to fiery demands for policy reform.

But for many of the people worldwide who were influenced by Swartz, one very important response has been to get back to work, that is, to start coding.

While protests and legislation plow forward in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide and preceding criminal prosecution, communities of computer programmers all over the world have started holding “hackathons” in Swartz’s memory, to collaborate on projects related to his work, or even projects he had started himself.

Boston held its own event on Saturday and Sunday on the Boston University campus, with between 30 and 40 programmers and supporters of open information gathering for two days in an effort to keep such projects moving forward.

“It’s not about getting out the message that Aaron was important, necessarily, to more people. It’s about helping people in the ways Aaron wanted to help people,” said Noah Swartz, Aaron’s younger brother, who helped organize the Boston hackathon. “It’s about carrying on his work.”

A hackathon, despite the negative connotations sometimes assigned to the word “hack,” is a confab that a group of programmers convene for a few days to intensively collaborate, often on projects that share a common theme.

Starting in January and continuing on into this month, people from Boston all the way to Bangalore have been holding loosely affiliated hackathons in Swartz’s memory, working mostly on projects to promote or spread open information.

Swartz, who took his own life last month at 26, was a prolific and influential programmer known for co-developing Internet services like RSS and Redditt, but was also a bold activist and writer in favor of open and free information.

At the time of his death, he was facing 13 felony counts and a potential maximum sentence of 35 years in prison related to his allegedly using MIT’s network to download 4 million papers from the academic library JSTOR. Friends and family have said the bullying nature of the prosecution of Swartz, who had battled depression, contributed to his suicide.

The prosecution and death have drawn the attention of the Internet activist community, but also among university and government officials, with many calling the criminal investigation an overreach. U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who oversaw the investigation, has countered with a statement that her office acted appropriately and had never intended to seek the maximum sentence, instead suggesting six months of jail time in a low security setting.

But while protests continue, for those influenced by his career, it’s also important to keep making progress on his actual projects.

When Yan Zhu, an MIT graduate now living in San Francisco and an open science advocate, first heard about Swartz’s death, it was a huge shock. She had planned to make a trip out to Boston, but the morning she was going to leave, found that several people in San Francisco wanted to hold some kind of event in his memory there.

“Someone suggested we do a hackathon,” she said. “Because Aaron was a hacker in the good sense. He used technology to make things that made the world a better place.”

They were going to originally hold one in Boston and one in San Francisco. But emails soon spread to hacker communities around the world, and before long there were over 17 events planned. On January 25, San Francisco’s Noisebridge hackerspace held an event with more than 100 attendees, and a week before that, Bangalore, India held an event with about 80 people, Zhu said.

There have now been Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathons in New York, DC, Paris, Eastern Europe and Vancouver, and more planned for this month, including one in Berlin and two in Chicago.

“It was completely inspirational,” Zhu said. “I did not expect such a huge response and that so many people around the world would be brought together by this. It’s kind of amazing, looking at the list of events going on in countries that I’d never even heard of, and I’ve been emailing these people and asking, ‘Hey what are you guys working on?’”

There’s a running list of events at the Noisebridge site and a shared Google Doc with a chart of projects and progress made. Much of the work is related to building tools that make information more accessible, specifically government documents or academic articles that are often in the public record, but difficult to access.

While many who hear about the Swartz case may come away with the idea that he was out there attacking or breaking into secured systems, the kind of work he did was actually completely non-malicious, Zhu said, adding that the projects at the hackathons are also completely legal.

For example, last weekend, Zhu worked on a project that took the complex government document site, and built a friendlier website to host the information in a way that is easier to browse.

Another group worked on RECAP, a browser plugin that Swartz had first developed, that makes it easy to share and organize articles from PACER, a court document archive.

In Boston’s event on Saturday and Sunday, one team was investigating how to increase public accessibility of reports by the Congressional Research Service, a think tank that hunts down information for lawmakers. The reports are public record, but not widely available, said Valerie Young, one of the Boston event’s organizers.

The weekend event was held at BUILDS, the Boston University Information Lab and Design Space. When word got out about the events, the students who run BUILDS offered up their space and invited the Boston hacker community to attend.

“I was very blown away by the idea,” Young said. “Aaron contributed a lot in his life, and if he hadn’t died who knows how much more he would have contributed. But we’re in a way making up for that by trying to jump on the bandwagon, and learn more, contribute more.”

On Saturday, about 30 attendees were gathered at the space, staring into laptop screens and either talking through projects or making conversation. An oversized monitor displayed the shared Google Doc, and white boards collected plans. Code was written; chips were eaten.

There have also been a number of educational talks, including some about dealing with depression in the tech community. There’s a different sort of mood than in much of the discussion surrounding the tragedy. While participants in many cases do want to see laws changed and justice sought, this is a different sort of thing.

“The justice aspects are certainly very important, and they are very relevant,” said M.C. McGrath, a Boston event organizer. “I think that ultimately that won’t go far enough .... We’re not just trying to fix things, but more to build them up, and I think the improvements will be more substantial if we can keep this going.”

Exactly what those improvements will look like remains to be seen, but for Noah Swartz, it’s been great to see people come out in support of the principles his brother stood for.

“I think a lot of his legacy is still being written, because so many people are still taking up the call to action.”