"The People's Skype" And Occupy Wall Street Hackathons

Academics and researchers sympathetic to the #Occupy movement have created a "People's Skype" and participated in a multinational hackathon that took advantage of a massive social media archive.

Months after the first protesters arrived in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street continues to fuel tech innovation. Several weeks ago, #OWS sympathizers created a “People's Skype"; meanwhile, a hackathon held this weekend uncovered previously unknown parallels with the Arab Spring. These developments are just the latest in a string of new products and tools that have come out of the movement.

J.R. Baldwin, a graduate student working on a MFA in Design and Technology at New York's Parsons The New School for Design, created an open-source product called the People's Skype. Baldwin calls the People's Skype a “phone-powered, distributed voice and voting system for the #Occupy movement,” and it's exactly what it sounds like. The open-source software creates an impromptu conference call and televoting system for mobiles and landlines intentionally designed for use in mic checks at #Occupy gatherings. In addition, the program is also intended for use in communicating across police lines and keeping abreast of demonstration news while stuck in a kettled area.

People's Skype users dial into a local phone number with a New York area code. Users who use the system for an amplified mic check are given a unique PIN. Once connected, they are plugged into a one-way conference call designed to repeat whatever's being spoken over the #Occupy mic check at that time. When General Assembly items are bought up to vote, the teleconference system is able to record and tally votes submitted via phone keypad.

The software was designed for a class on social change through technology taught by MIT Media Lab's Chris Csikzentmihalyi and for a class on free speech rights taught by Melanie Crean. People's Skype was programmed in PHP with a MongoDB database and a Tropo API for phone interaction; Tropo provided assistance with setting up the project. According to Baldwin, “The tricky part came when integrating the dial tone, keypad voting interface, as I had to create a method to be kicked off and instantly rejoined after a key was pressed.”

Speaking of the MIT Media Lab, the high-tech institution held a #Occupydata Hackathon organized by R-Shief. R-Shief is a nonprofit lab that collects and analyzes Middle East-related data from the Internet; the Los Angeles-based organization has already data-mined more than 12 million Twitter messages and several pentabytes of data scraped from publicly accessible social networking sites. Laila Shereen Sakr, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, has played a crucial role in the lab's efforts and has demonstrated her findings to, among others, executives at Facebook.

The #Occupydata Hackathon was also held at locations in Los Angeles and Europe in addition to Cambridge. Co-sponsors of the event included USC's Institute for Multimedia and Literacy and Interdivisional Media Arts and Practice PhD Program, along with the HaCCS Lab, Jadaliyya, and Occupy Research.

Participants in the event had access to R-Shief's archives and swarm computing analytics. A team in Utretcht, the Netherlands, created a visualization of 14 different #Occupy hashtag @reply networks from Twitter:

Another group affiliated with Occupy Research graphed how Twitter activity related to Occupy Wall Street exploded exponentially over time:

Other coders managed to turn #Occupy data into a Qbert-like game:

For coders and academics at the hackathon, the important lesson was that the data visualization and analytics models of the Arab Spring could easily be ported over to analysis of the #Occupy movements here in the States. While the graphics and projects that come out of hackathons such as this may seem abstract, they are crucially important for academics, journalists, and businesspeople. The methods being tested to sort through mass amounts of social networking data—in this case relating to the Occupy movement—are the same ones that will be used by both academics and analysts to make sense of the social web in future years.

[Top Image: R-Shief, Bottom Images: J.R. Baldwin/Ryanne Turenhout/Occupy Research/Adam Liszkiewicz]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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