Who doesn’t love hackathons? Hootsuite Engineer Alex Palcuie participated in December’s 2014 EU Hackathon in Brussels, Belgium. Alex shares his experiences below (originally posted on Blogspot) about making a difference, new friends, and 2nd place.

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This month I participated in the EUHackathon 2014 in Brussels. Our challenge was to build tools that increased transparency and participation in the European Union.

My team built a site that helps the public understand the meeting timetable – with who, at what time, and where – of EU commissioners. We won second place, and had lots of fun.

second place
Team Commission Today

Team ‘Commission Today’

Most teams had formed before coming to the competition, but I was the only participant from Romania, so the organisers suggested that me and the other two individual participants make a team.

My teammates were Daniel Freund and Anselm Bradford. Daniel works for Transparency International, an organisation that fights against corruption. He doesn’t have any technical skills, but he knows how EU institutions work, what laws should they respect, and what are the best available resources to build from. Anselm is from the US and was travelling to India. He is an engineer at Code for America, where he builds apps for government institutions.

Daniel, me and Ans
Daniel, Alex, and Anselm

Our Idea

We talked for more than three hours before deciding on an idea. Daniel told us that in the last three weeks, due to the pressure for more transparency, the EU commissioners have started publishing with whom are they meeting daily.

The problem is this information appears scattered around each commissioner’s page, and after the meeting has passed, that information is removed from the page. The data is not shown in a transparent manner, and as a journalist or as a lobbyist, it’s important to have access to information about past meetings. Finally, commissioners and their staff are allowed to meet only with registered lobbyists from organisations that declare how much they spend yearly on lobbying in the Transparency Register.

Our idea was to scrape that meeting information from commissioner pages and display it in a way that is easy to read, to search, and would expose possible infringements.

This is how the agenda of the EU President is shown.
This is how the agenda of the EU President is shown.

Let’s Get To It

I used python requests and BeautifulSoup libraries to scrape the data. Then, I threw it in a django app and exposed a REST API using TastyPie. Ans built the frontend using pure Javascript and Haml. We ran the frontend isolated in a Vagrant box.

MVP

Our app, filtered by unregistered lobbyists.
Our app, filtered by unregistered lobbyists.

Our Pitch

Daniel told us from an user perspective what he would want to see in the app, what features were useful or not. He also went through each of the entries, cross-checked it with information from the transparency register, and drew statistics from the data for the presentation. After 30 hours of coding and researching, we had a working hack with over 100 entries. The projector broke just before our presentation, but that did not stop us from impressing the jury made of up members from Google, Facebook, Netflix, ICANN, and Chaos Computer Club.

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2nd Place

After the presentations, we went to the EU parliament where the prizes were given. The winners scraped the entire archive of videos from the public EU parliament conferences, tagged them using metadata, and exposed them in a beautiful interface for viewing and interacting with other viewers.

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Friends

After the ending ceremony, I went with four other participants to a nice place where we played board games. After losing badly at Carcasonne and winning at Dixit, we went to a hipster bar where we talked about EU politics, US congress, Romania’s latest elections, Ukraine, scientology, the Chaos Computer Computer, and a whole lot of other interesting subjects. I want to thank the organisers, because the accommodation was cozy (even though I slept only 5 hours each night), we had a lot of delicious food, and everything was awesome.

Open Source and Online

Our app is open source on Github, the working example is available here and the API has CORS enabled and can be used freely.

See you next year! 🙂

alexp

 

 About the Author: Alex Palcuie is a software engineer in the Hootsuite Analytics team, working at Hootsuite Bucharest. Follow him at @alexpalcuie, and read more of his writing on his blog.