The Internet wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for hackers. Those who use their software coding skills to steal information or break the Internet may have bad intentions, but for the most part hackers are programmers who do much of their work out of pride and for the benefit of people.
You’ll find them in what’s known as the open source community, where things like Apache web server software, currently serving more than half of all the world’s websites, and Linux, which runs more web servers than any other operating system, were created.
The impact of these coders, engineers and developers is immeasurable if not invisible to the growing number of people joining the Internet each day. That number will soon cross 3 Billion, accounting for more than 40% of the world’s population, according to Internet Live Stats.
This hacker spirit and motivation is building behind another wave of innovation, where hackers are finding better ways to use so-called open data, the kind government, businesses and people make available. It ranges from public transporation schedules and freeway traffic to the kind of data we generate daily using our Internet connected devices.
“It’s going to change everything,” says Robert Scoble, co-author of The Age of Context. In his new book co-written with Shel Israel explores how systems are studying us, but also how those systems such as mobile phones, social media and location based services are producing technology customized to our individual needs.
“I think we’re in the second year of a ten year shift,” he said. “We’re going to be wearing sensors that track our health and our activity. Our cars, our homes, and our stores are being turned into sensor platforms.”
He says although privacy concerns need to be worked out, the balance is achieved when users trust the technology and the organizations deploying it. It works when we’ll receive greater value from all the data we generate, much the way we give personal data and buying habit information to credit card companies in order to get the convenience of cashless transactions.
And we’ll need even more data to make devices work better, which means putting computing and sensors in more places. He cites the example of a baby bottle with a sensor that can track how often a baby eats.
“That might not sound like a big deal, but if your baby is having trouble with digestion, the doctor will have accurate information about feeding times,” he said. “And that matters.”
In short, Scoble says when it comes to the data each person generates, if you think there’s a lot now, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The burgeoning data we’re creating is a vast new territory.
That’s what excites many technologists about it. It’s a new form of information —a new capability — driving innovation and products that benefit the public. If hacking could play such a vital role in the development of the Internet, just imagine what such a community could do with this data explosion in areas like health, transportation, public works, agriculture, government services, etc.
There are two challenges according to Ryan Caplan, CEO of Coldlight, a company that specializes in data analytics, predictive technology and machine learning.
“First and foremost is the connectivity of information itself,” he says. “It’s great to have public transportation data communicate with traffic data, weather data and all kinds of other source of information. But the reality is the information is still stored in formats that aren’t necessarily easily connected. It requires a lot of human intervention to curate, to bring together, to draw a meaning across these systems.”
The other challenge is to find meaning.
“If you dump an ocean’s worth of data into somebody’s lab, not all of it is going to be useful or usable. We’re focused a lot on making it easier for people to explore that data using machine learning and other techniques to help identify what the data means.”
In the grand scheme, the goal is to transform a system or multiple systems. Technologists like Brandon Barnett, Director of Business Innovation at Intel Labs, says the data we create as we go through our lives is a huge resource pool.
During a recent Data Services Accelerator event at Intel headquarters, Barnett asked, “How does that resource enable the transformation of systems?”
One example he cites is an asthma inhaler made by Propeller Health, formerly known as Asthmapolis. The product is essentially a hacked device containing GPS technology. During an asthma attack, depressing the inhaler to take medicine starts a cascade of events using sensors, apps, text messages and analytics. It contributes to the knowledge base and helps anyone else who has the condition.
Barnett points out how such data is amplified as it is shared.
“People with asthma can log on and see trouble spots. Are there air quality issues in a location today? They can see the data on a map and make decisions based on participation in that community.”
It’s similar to a recent research project where a few of Barnett’s Intel Labs teammates equipped a Portland, Ore neighborhood with sensors to collect real-time air quality data. That data, mixed with other publically available air quality data including tree pollen measurements, was made useful in a variety of ways, including a prototype mobile app that gave joggers turn by turn directions for choosing streets with the cleanest air.
Transforming systems is rarely simple.
“I’m a complexity guy,” says Barnett, who was trained in physics. “I’m looking at the factors that need to be in place in order to understand the massive and growing data about people and society.”
Barnett seeks to understand how each factor impacts the rest.
“We look at the independent nodes within a complex network, and which ones we can take action on,” he said.
The Hacking Spirit
By nature, hackers are generally oriented toward solving problems to help others. “They haven’t forgotten their 9th grade civics class,” comments Bruce Perens, one of the founders of the open source movement. “They are out there doing work for people. And it helps that one of the special things about software is that you can share it so well and so easily.”
Perens was a part of the legendary New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab in the 1980s. He actually studied broadcasting and filmmaking at New York Tech, but working in the lab part time allowed him to apply his self-taught coding skills.
After school some of his lab mates, as did Perens, moved on to a hardware company called Pixar. This was where he encountered the need to hack a solution, which helped out programmers at other companies.
“There was this horrible problem with a memory allocation bug,” he said in an interview. “I wrote something I called Electric Fence, which was my first open source software, that took all of these problems and just isolated them immediately.”
He sent it out on the net since Pixar had no interest in making and selling memory allocation debuggers. Soon after, a programmer from another firm, on his own initiative, wrote the documentation and returned it to Perens.
“When he sent it back, that put an obligation on me,” said Perens. “The obligation was that I would now maintain that documentation and distribute it with my software, which I do to this day more than 20 years later.”
Perens is quick to point out hackers aren’t antithetical to companies. Most hackers work for them. But they code their solutions to help others facing the same issues in an all-boats-rise scenario, which supports people and businesses. It’s the fundamental spirit of hacking and open source.
The word hacker was misappropriated by the popular press in the 1980s to refer to people who broke into networks and computer systems. “It’s actually a term that arises from the playful manipulation of what is possible in the world, particularly in the coding sense,” says Richard Barnes, co-founder and developer for a project called OMG Transit based in Minneapolis.
OMG endeavors to aggregate all of the real-time information of the many modes of transit available to people across many cities. It emerged from last year’s National Day of Civic Hacking. Barnes had envisioned doing a project about access to real-time data. But a developer he met, Matt Decuir who had just moved to the Twin Cities from Seattle, lamented the lack of a smartphone transit app in Minneapolis. A project was born.
“We had a prototype for OMG up and running in six hours,” Barnes explains. “You could spend hours building something polished, but when you’re hacking you’re putting something together almost as a proof of concept. You’re building something that’s awesome in a short amount of time.”
The National Day of Civic Hacking happens this weekend, May 31 and June 1, in more than 100 cities.
Many first time hackathons are coordinated outside the U.S. in places such as Australia, China and India.
Just days ahead of the event, there are more than 120 events planned, where connect citizens, software developers and entrepreneurs using publicly released data, code and technology.
Cities like Houston, Texas are in the spirit.
Intel is sponsoring the event for the second year in an effort inspire open innovation among civic minded hackers eager to find new ways for in which technology can be used to improve people’s lives.
Many events will include Maker technologies such as Intel Galileo, which developers can use to discover new ways to use microcontrollers with sensors to improve communities and governments.