Cram more than 100 developers, cyber experts, Israel activists, marketing and PR professionals into one room together for three days with laptops and an endless supply of food, and what do you get?
Well, first of all you get a lot of noise — a huge and seething babble of opinions, contradictions, arguments and heated debates — but then gradually, as the hullabaloo dies, you start to get ideas.
This is exactly what the team at the Reut Institute, an Israeli social innovation think-tank, hoped would happen when it launched its first-ever Israel Legitimacy Hackathon at the Mandarin Loft at Hof Hatzuk near Tel Aviv, earlier this week.
The three-day event brought together Israel activists from six countries and many different organizations, including ISRAEL21c, Washington Institute, J Street, Israel Campus Coalition, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NGO Monitor, and Stand With Us, to combat one of the most difficult problems Israel is facing today – the delegitimization of the country in the international arena.
The goal was to develop new digital platforms that could make a significant difference in Israel’s battle for hearts and minds worldwide, and to create a toolbox of technologies that would allow Israel supporters to communicate better, faster and more efficiently.
“Israel is facing a campaign to challenge its right to exist by a global network of small and focused groups of people who are bent on its destruction, most communicating and working online,” said Daphna Kaufman, the director of policy and strategy at Reut.
“There are not that many of them, but they are having a significant impact. After the events of this summer, we realized something very new was needed to create change.
” The hackathon started out with 12 teams each focused on different areas. ISRAEL21c was part of the Media Assess team. After a first frustrating day when no one could agree on anything, on the second day our team was pared down dramatically.
In addition to me, it included developer Ethan Cowan, entrepreneur Avigail Perl, ISRAEL21c associate editor Viva Sarah Press and student Denisse Schnabel.
We got to work with the goal of somehow pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and within a couple of hours had a good idea, and even a name – Go. ProIL.
The name is most likely problematic for copyright reasons, but when you’ve got just a day and a half to develop your app, a business plan and a presentation, something’s got to give.
Our idea was an app that would help positive content developers like ISRAEL21c to get their content out to as wide an audience as possible by identifying the analytics of what makes a story successful on the Web.
By examining word choice, topic, time of day of posting, sharing patterns and key words, the app reveals unexpected patterns that will help media companies create more successful content in the future.
On our last day, graphic designer Dima Kogan, and Rona Langer-Ziv, a former consultant at the Israeli Diplomatic Mission to the UN, joined us to help with the finishing touches.
It’s amazing to see a hackathon in action. There were people of all temperaments and ages, from 15 to 65, and more people wearing Google Glass – tipped back on their head like sunglasses — than you’d normally see in a Google Glass showroom.
There was also no decaffeinated coffee. “This is a hackathon,” growled the man standing next to me in the queue.
“People are complaining that the coffee isn’t STRONG enough – not that they want decaf.” Excitement and energy levels wax and wane as the days go by.
On one table there were people energetically working around their laptops; on another someone was fast asleep, head laid out flat on the table.
Many of the developers – including Cowan – slept overnight at the event, rolling out sleeping bags on the floor, or bundling up in coats and sweaters on a sofa.
Prize winners were announced on Tuesday as the much-anticipated winter storm, which had been brewing for the last few days, began to make itself felt on the country.
Twelve teams had now become 15, and each of them presented to a panel of judges from philanthropic foundations, Jewish communal and Israel advocacy organizations, the Israeli government and tech experts.
We won third prize of $2,000 for Go. ProIL, which was a great delight to our team.
Second prize of $3,000 went to the team that created Isra-Ace, software that geographically categorizes content and social-media activity created by anti-Israel activists, while creating a community that will proactively respond to the anti-Israel content.
And the first prize of $5,000 most deservedly went to the Virtual War Room, an excellent project designed by a team of students from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
The team created a web-based platform, initially rolled out during Operation Protective Edge this summer, available for pro-Israel activists around the world who want to defend Israel’s legitimacy, and provides them with accesses to information and technological tools.
“This event produced more than a dozen innovative ways to fight Israel’s delegitimization and the BDS movement using technology,” said Kaufman.
“This was the first time a community like this was brought together for the common purpose of fighting the assault on Israel’s fundamental legitimacy.
We believe that this event represents a new way of harnessing Israeli and Jewish technological know-how, passion and commitment to tipping the scales in this important battle.”
Reut now plans to accompany several of the projects that emerged during the hackathon to the next stage.