In mid-May, four of us from Ocupop met in New York City to take part in the Tribeca Hacks: Storytelling Innovation Lab put on by the Tribeca Film Institute, Ford Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation.
Ocupop Founder and Creative Director Michael Nieling and Junior Art Director Nick Krusick flew in from Wisconsin; I, Matthew McVickar, Senior Art Director, flew from Honolulu International Airport; Justin Falcone, our Engineer, took the subway in from Brooklyn.
Tribeca Hacks is a series of hackathons aimed at bringing together technologists and content creators to focus on interactive storytelling. We were one of the eight teams at the Storytelling Innovation Lab. A dozen of us crowded around tables pushed together in a hall full of web developers, filmmakers, journalists, animators, musicians, and a host of other creatives and engineers.
You can read about the event on the Tribeca Film Institute website and watch their video commemorating the event (featuring yours truly!) below:
The goal of this hackathon was laid out from the beginning: “We will use the web to better tell the story about X by enabling the user to Y. They can take action on the issue by Z.” Let’s take a look at how we did that…
The ‘Hazardous Hospitals’ Project
We received our charge on the morning of Monday, May 13th. We would be working with a group of journalists from ProPublica and PBS Frontline to produce an interactive investigative report on hospital illness and injury in the US. And while the hackathon’s stated goal was a ‘minimum viable product’ on Friday morning, our deadline was more serious–a finished, functional product, live on the ProPublica and PBS Frontline websites on Friday by noon.
(This was Frontline and ProPublica’s second foray into collaborative digital storytelling—they worked together on A Perfect Terrorist: David Coleman Headley’s Web of Betrayal, built with design agency Secret Location in about a month after being prototyped at a Mozilla-led hack day.)
We were up until midnight on day one, editing the video script around a table at 2over10’s offices, on the phone with PBS Frontline via conference call, collaborating on a Google Document and prototyping the website. By noon on day two, the video had been shot. While Justin and I built the website and Nick and Michael worked on layout design and video editing, we brought in designers back at Ocupop headquarters in Milwaukee to help with illustration and layout, recruited an animator and video specialist from 2over10, and continued to work on copyediting and brainstorming website features. Features fell into place one by one over the next two days (and nights).
We all worked nonstop, with four of us staying up well over 30 hours from Thursday morning to Friday morning to get the story done and live on both the PBS Frontline and ProPublica websites. In the end, we met our deadline. creating an interactive video and investigative report built from scratch—script, video, music, code, and all—in just four days.
You can see the finished product on Frontline or on ProPublica. (Chrome or Safari recommended; watch out for rough edges.)
And in the spirit of a hackathon, the source code is on GitHub.
The aforementioned goal of this hackathon was: “We will use the web to better tell the story about X by enabling the user to Y. They can take action on the issue by Z.” Were we successful?
We used the web to tell the story about hospital injury and illness by enabling the user to watch a video and learn more about six points in that video through interactive features. They can take action on the issue by following any of the many links at the end of the video, several of which go to patient harm questionnaires that will become part ProPublica’s ongoing investigation, and others that provide guides for family members who have loved ones entering the hospital.
I would say we were successful–this interactive website has already directed attention towards the issue and brought more resources to those affected by it. As an issue, hospital injury has a ways to go; it is a problem that many more journalists, lawmakers, citizens, and healthcare professionals will solve. But it was an honor and a privilege to work on this small step in the process, and one we hope to have the opportunity to repeat soon.
Ocupop’s Justin Falcone, who is built the nuts and bolts of the Hazardous Hospitals web experience, was asked to write about his experience for the Mozilla Open News Source column. Read his take, which focuses on the successes and shortcomings of the technology and project management aspects of that week as well as a big-picture perspective on the state of digital storytelling:
“The tools we’re more sorely lacking are on the backend; we need content managemnt systems that aren’t just a reflection of 20th-century publishing. Today’s blog platforms are still in the “horseless carriage” stage; the platforms we are eventually building interactive content on will be completely alien to contemporary publishing systems. Interactive articles and videos are only the first step. While this is technically still a living project—we’re still tracking bugs on Github—the content for this project is done. Yet the story doesn’t end here; ProPublica continues to study patient safety and members of their patient harm Facebook group are still sharing their experiences.”