Hackathon! The Impact of Collective Collaboration

 When you think of computer hackers, you generally picture the 1995 movie Hackers or Penelope Garcia from the show Criminal Minds, people sitting alone in a room filled with computers. However, as I learned at the Impact Hub Vienna Hackathon at Ars Electronica in Linz, nothing could be further from the truth.  The Lemmings came to Ars Electronica en masse to show us all what teamwork means.

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The Lemmings are a group of hackers founded by Thomas Schranz. He started the group in order to get people interested in computer programming and to create new and innovative solutions. While I was at the Ars Electronica Festival, they turned up to show us what they could do. The way that Lemmings usually work is that they meet up at a predetermined location, like a coffee shop, where the theme of the day, subject matter, and actual location are revealed. The group then works as a team to create an innovative chat program based solution, known as a chat bot.

Impact Hub Vienna has hosted the Lemmings on several occasions, and they are named after the computer game – in case you were wondering. This was just the latest instance of collaboration between the hacker group and Impact Hub Vienna.

I spoke to several individuals about their favorite projects and chat bots. I received a thorough tour of the most famous chat bot, Poncho (unfortunately, this was not created by the Lemmings). Poncho can tell you about the weather and uses natural language processing algorithms to understand what you are saying and respond appropriately. In this case, Gerald Urschitz and I asked Poncho if we needed a jacket to go outside in Linz that day. Poncho responded with “No.” That was likely related to the fact that it was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day outside.

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Dominik Felix showed me a chat bot that he was working on. It turns out that it might be possible to ask for help concerning your cable television over Facebook Messenger, and even order your cable products and set up an appointment in your home. He then showed me an innovative business card with a cross between a QR code and a Snapchat function that allows you to start a conversation with someone by scanning his or her business card.

I spoke with Kira Zatsepina and learned that she helped create a chat bot that returned movies quotes and pictures based on whatever mood you typed into the question field. For example, if you typed silence into the chat bot it would return one of the many scenes from Pulp Fiction where they stared at each other in complete and utter silence. The bot that Artemis Linhart is most proud of helping to create, is an innovative and fun way to track your package through the post. You type your tracking number into the chat bot and it returns the travel diary of your package along with a picture of your package which has been anthropomorphized and super imposed onto another image.

However, as I spoke to the Lemmings about their various projects, people kept directing me to Carina Pfann and her raspberry pi. That is not a typo, by the way. As Carina explained to me, a raspberry pi is a very small and simple Linux computer. Hers was set up in a very colorful case with an LED display. The purpose of this little computer was to display the mood of a conference or event with a simple color based on the various moods and adjectives that participants typed into the chat bot Getso. When you type in a mood, a color comes back on your phone, but also through the LED display. This would change based on the overall mood of the participants. The chat bot does this through what is known as sentiment analysis and is based on a training set from social media.

Next time you see a group of Lemmings follow them and see what cool things they might be up to, the computer hackers not the animals!

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Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes). Photo Credit: Aneta Pawlik

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