Hacking on a Shoestring: Bucharest’s Open Media Challenge


The old saying ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ accurately sums up the Open Media Challenge which took place in Bucharest on 29 and 30 of September. Not only was the entire two-day event run with only $3000 donated by Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, it was planned on the go after the idea was conceived by small group of Bucharest coders, hackers and journalists.

Nevertheless, the hack days, which focused on creating tools for journalists, produced some impressive results, including the platform itself, which was made completely open source so that it can be re-used to support future hack days.

Photo: Andreea Bonea

The winning entry, called ‘Political Colours’, was an interactive map of political preferences across Romania created by a nine-member team of activists, coders and journalists. The aim of the map is to give the public a previously unavailable visual overview of Romania’s political landscape. Before this information was only shared in the form of PDF files “containing interminable lists of commune names, street names, postal numbers, blocks and houses.” It also enables users to create their own thematic maps with different layers and filters and makes possible a whole range of comparisons.

One of the most striking features of the event was the strong focus on mapping. Out of the eight completed entries, five were maps of things like agricultural subsidies, media abuses, arrests and stray dogs. These issues concern many Romanians yet clear, contextualised data is almost impossible to find. A consequence of this, says Stefan Candea, one of the event organisers, is that “there is this need for people to maps things.” He believes that many “feel the need to have context, and a bigger picture and an overview on what is happening around the country or in the region.”

“You have big news about a person who was killed by a stray dog in Bucharest, but the media goes after the story without any other information on  the context: how many stray dogs are there, how many were bitten in the last  month or year, who should be responsible…”

These mapping projects also have the potential to build strong communities around them, says Candea, “or around that problem or solution.” Being open source also means that people can add to the projects and work with the community to improve them. This approach is also “much more sustainable than an NGO approach” he adds, where, once the money is finished “you don’t have anyone involved anymore.”

Stefan Candea (left) and Tibi Turbureanu, President of open source coders community, Ceata.org. Photo: Andreea Bonea

For Candea, who is director of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, the event’s success also highlights the fact that people do not have to wait for official bodies to publish analyses or even to make data available. “You can do it yourself, and you can inform people how to reuse it and you can build on it without waiting for the authorities, because they won’t do it,” he said. As a journalist with over a decade’s experience covering corruption and organised crime, Candea explains that some authorities in Romania would rather pay companies they already have dealings with millions of Euros in EU money for this work “because they will get kickbacks.”

The hackathon was held in English so that non-Romanians could also attend. In fact, the event attracted interest from individuals and groups across the region, with attendees arriving from Moldova, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Germany. “We had more people that we expected actually” said Candea, adding that he was surprised at “the enthusiasm of this really great group of people who participated,” particularly as it was a completely new concept for most.

So will this become a regular event in Bucharest? Candea believes that hack days will soon become as common as workshops and conferences are today. The idea of people meeting and working to solve problems themselves has much greater appeal than all the complaining and blaming that goes on in the media and society today, “we need to keep this discussion going,” he said.

Update: Political Colours, the winning hack, has since been picked up by mainstream news companies, including online and TV outlets, says Candea, and is unmistakable proof that these kinds of tools are needed and useful.