Tonight begins the second annual Aaron Swartz hackathon

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on November 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Less than a year online activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Ever since, there have been memorial events and tracts written for the crypto community to explicate Swartz's story as both a tragedy and a bellwether for what's to come in online activism.

Continuing in this vein, more proactive programs are taking form in Swartz's and his crusade's name. Another one commences tonight: The second annual Aaron Swartz hackathon.

I first became aware of this program when I attended a crypto community event in Manhattan a few weeks back called "Techno-Activism Third Monday." This event highlights new programs and softwares available for online activists; the last session presented a new open-sourced program to circumvent internet censorship for web users in oppressive regimes.

The attendees of this event varied by age, technical background, and ethnicity, but when Swartz's name was mentioned there was a silent common understanding.

Robert Ochshorn, the organizer the NYC thread of this program, explained that the hackathon would last 24 hours and would focus on developing projects that Swartz himself started or those that work toward his ethos of an open, free, and uncorrupted internet.

Ochshorn took part in the first hackathon, which happened last January. As he explained it, the event happened "almost spontaneously" following the news of Swartz's death. People in numerous cities participated, all convening at a centralized location in their city to create productive software programs that aptly honor their fallen hero. "There was no central planning the first time," he said. People just heard the news, came together, and started hacking.

While tonight's event is headquartered in San Francisco, 19 cities worldwide will be taking part. The organizers invite anyone and everyone who wants to conceptualize and build software programs that will make a force a more open online landscape.

The projects to be undertaken tonight have yet to be decided (here's an ongoing list enumerated by the organizers). Current proposals include a project to better archive Swartz's writings, SecureDrop -- a software for secure and anonymous document submission for journalists -- a library of web apps that encrypt users' data before they send it to a server, and an open-source tool to help journalists search through large sets of documents to more easily find stories.

Online activistic responses are on the rise for good reason. Revelations of governmental spying, regimes more persistently tracking citizens' web usage, journalists being interrogated for publishing leaks -- all of these are examples of why people like Ochshorn and those participating believe more needs to be done. He sees the hackathon as a way to spur greater online activism.

While it may be more of a niche thing, the hackathon could create real tools. But for Ochshorn what will make it successful is people coming and taking part -- no matter their skill sets.

"This event," he said, "is really organized for the people that are there more than the external audience."

Here is a list of participating cities.