This past weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to New York City for The Wall Street Journal’s Data Transparency Weekend. This was a codeathon whose theme was the development of tools to allow people — ranging from journalists and technical professionals to ordinary users — to better understand how their data are collected and used in the course of using the Internet.
Data Transparency weekend was the brainchild of the team, led by Julia Angwin, that produces the WSJ’s popular What They Know series. They managed to bring together around 100 of us to see what we can do to advance the state of the art in three general areas: Scanning, Education, and Control. The weekend began on Friday evening with a dinner gathering, followed by some short talks to inspire us. Those of us with project ideas then gave 30 second pitches to form our project teams. I proposed an idea around investigating the possible use of HTML5 local storage for tracking purposes, which in retrospect was a little too narrow, and didn’t attract much interest. But Ed Felten, who was organizing another project, tapped me on the shoulder and suggested that my idea had some synergy with his, so I joined his project team.
For those of you that don’t know Ed Felten, he’s a highly respected professor at Princeton who is currently serving as Chief Technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. It was amazing to work with/for Ed, not so much because of his stature and celebrity but because he’s just a great project organizer and leader. Our project was called the Tracking Report Card, an effort to summarize and display for users the extent to which they’re tracked by third parties (such as advertisers) on frequently-used websites, and in particular those that don’t honor do-not-track and other opt-out measures. By the end of the evening Friday, we had a general block diagram of the project and tasks assigned to each of us. My main task was to write an engine to recognize which of the browser cookies placed by a website are used for tracking, as opposed to other cookies that don’t identify the user and those used for other purposes such as tracking opt-out indicators.
The project team included people with a variety of skills and backgrounds, which was just what we needed. We had members who knew how to collect the data, people who know how to present the data through a Firefox extension, those who know how to process the data, and yet others who are familiar with advertising practices and common cookie use practices.
I had been a bit concerned about how effective I would be at writing code, since it has been a while since I have written very much. I do wish that my coding skills were fresher, but I did manage to crank out the code needed for my task. But, as I found out at the one hackathon I had been to previously, writing code isn’t the only thing that happens. There is infrastructure to set up, documentation to write, and graphics to prepare. So there’s something for everyone with even peripherally relevant skills.
Part of the idea at a codeathon is to produce something, even if it isn’t perfect, by a specified deadline. Our project is described here, and you can download the proof-of-concept Firefox extension to try it for yourself.
I had a fabulous time at the Data Transparency weekend. I got to talk with some amazing people, connect with some that I had only conversed with via Twitter, meet many new people working in the field, pick up some inspiration and motivation, hone my coding skills, and learn a whole lot. I made some new connections for OneID as well. Not bad for a weekend.
- The culture, at this event anyway, was not intimidating. People were available to help, and it was always done in a manner that was supportive.
- If there was one thing that I wish I had learned better before the event, it was the use of github, the popular source code management and collaboration system. I ended up asking for more help with that than with anything else.
- We should probably have started a little earlier on our project writeup and website. A common mistake.
My thanks to the Wall Street Journal folks and other organizers who provided wonderful facilities and support, kept us very well fed throughout the event, and basically took care of any annoyance that might distract from our productivity and enjoyment of the event. Thanks to the other members of my team as well. I wasn’t ready for the weekend to end (maybe this means I got more sleep than I’m supposed to). I’m hoping they had a great experience as well, and that they’ll sponsor more of these.
More info on the event: