Critical Making Hackathon: Situated Hacking, Surveillance and Big Data

CHI 2014 (The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems) – Toronto, ON, Canada


The Critical Making Workshop was a success, and we are grateful for all the participants who contributed their time and energy to making the weekend so interesting!  We have put together a short debrief document that covers some of the events of the workshop, including the Quantified Toilets provocation produced by one of our workshop teams.


Big data is a burgeoning area of interest in Human-Computer Interaction, enabled by the convergence of several technological advances: the increasing ubiquity of embedded sensing technology, the ability to transmit data from almost anywhere, and the cheapness and availability of digital storage. It presents appealing opportunities for data analysis and visualization, and opens up fundamentally different ways of knowing the world and our own practices. At the same time, it raises questions around consent and privileged access to information.

The Critical Making Hackathon is a practical and critical exploration of data gathering and visualization, and the questions it raises, in the form of a two-day oppositional hackathon, followed by an experimental deployment during CHI. Critical Making emphasizes how hands-on making can supplement and extend critical reflection, especially on sociotechnical issues. Acts of praxis are used to illuminate conceptual ambiguities that aren’t readily understood through language alone.


A map showing directions between Semaphore and the official CHI hotels can be found here.

If taking a streetcar up Spadina, get off at Harbord and walk E one block to St George St. You will be at the SE corner of Robarts Library. Walk approximately 50 feet N to enter the library. If taking subway, ride the University side of the Yonge-University line going N. Get off at St George Station. Upon exiting St George Station at the St George Street exit (not the Bedford exit), walk a few hundred feet S to get to Robarts. It is the largest and most noticeable building on the street.

Semaphore is located on the 7th floor of Robarts Library, 130 St. George Street, on the University of Toronto campus. To reach the 7th floor, please take the P4 Elevator – this is the only elevator that goes to the 7th floor.  The P4 Elevator is located on the 2nd floor of Robarts. If you enter from the main Robarts entrance, please take the escalator or elevator to reach the 2nd floor. If you have any issues, please contact gabby – gabby dot resch at utoronto dot ca.

Here is a map of recommended restaurants:
There will be student volunteers at the convention center to help out with reservations. Please ask them, if you are interested, when you get there in the morning.


We will be exploring the notion of surveillance and counter-surveillance through discussion and hands-on oppositional hacking.  The group will be divided into 2-3 teams, each of which will develop their own plan for surveilling the CHI conference and, optionally, attempting to interfere with other team’s efforts. We will provide supplies for building small IR badges and a chunk of the workshop will be devoted to programming ATTiny microcontrollers for the badges and assembling them for distribution at CHI.  Teams will also develop a plan for detecting the IR badges; we will supply some basic components for this, i.e. simple IR detectors, but encourage you to bring additional supplies you might want (Arduinos, IR cameras, other sensors, etc).

We will provide teams with the following components:

We will try and have some more advanced pieces like Arduinos and IR cameras on hand as well. We will provide basic code & support for making the IR badges & implementing simple detection; it will be up to the teams to come up with more complex/interesting things to do based on your particular areas of interest and expertise. We encourage you to think about the various skills and supplies you might be able to apply in this context and to bring what seems useful.  Don’t forget to think about programming environments you might want to have up-to-date. The facility where the workshop will be taking place will have soldering stations and work space.


Whether you’ve participated in a hackathon before, or this is your first time, you should read these Frequently Asked Questions, because we’re doing things a bit differently here.

Q: “Oppositional Hackathon?” What does that mean?

A: We’re incorporating a game-like element into this hackathon, structured around the idea that surveillance and privacy issues often entail multiple groups of stakeholders with conflicting goals and agendas.  Participants in the workshop will be assigned to teams, some of whom will be seeking to collect data about CHI attendees during the conference while others will seek to thwart these efforts.  Other teams might be assigned the task of trying to accomplish a particular secret task in this environment of increased surveillance, while avoiding detection.  Our goal is to represent the complicated environment in which issues around Big Data are situated.  Put more simply: everyone will be on a team,, and will be actively working against each other to accomplish various goals that we will establish.

Q: What if I don’t like my team, or want to work with a specific group of colleagues?

A: We’re going to make every effort to create teams that have a balanced selection of skills and abilities, but we understand that sometimes there can be personality conflicts.  If this occurs we will re-balance the teams on a case-by-case basis.  If you are interested in applying for the workshop as a pre-existing team, let us know and we will do our best to accommodate you.

Q: What if I don’t have any hardware or software skills?  Will I still be able to participate?

A: While we encourage applicants with existing hacking knowledge to apply, we believe that anyone can make a successful contribution to the workshop.  This hack isn’t just about building clever technical gadgets: it’s about strategically considering how to make the most out of limited resources; how to motivate and manipulate the crowd to do your work for you; and how to make sense of the data that you collect.  In addition to hardware and software abilities, we will need people with skills in analytics, data visualization, game theory, game design and strategy, and in social media and social engineering.  Chances are that if you are interested in the topic, then you already have something to contribute.

Q:This all still seems very vague…what will we actually be doing?

A: We’re still working out the details of this, but we will be providing some basic kits for each team to work with, containing some small microcontrollers, and IR LEDs, as well as IR detectors.  Each team will be able to build and distribute a collection of “smart-badges” which can be tracked and programed (and subverted) in various ways over the course of the conference.  We will provide support and instructions for basic badge assembly and programming, as well as resources for more advanced builds.

Q: Do I need to bring any supplies of my own?

A: We are providing all of the basics, but you should feel free to supplement them with any gear you think might be useful or fun to hack with.  We encourage you to bring any tools and resources you think are suitable for the activity.  As we get closer to the workshop we will also be posting detailed information about the materials we are providing, so that you may familiarize yourself with them.

Q: What are the outcomes of the workshop?  Will I get a publication out of this?

A: This is a strange workshop because the first two days are really just preparation for the rest of the week.  Our goal is for the hackathon/game to extend into CHI itself, with teams competing during meal-breaks and between sessions (we will establish some ground rules to avoid disrupting the conference sessions themselves, and to keep everything sporting).  We are working on scheduling a “birds-of-a-feather” session at the end of the conference so that we can reconvene and discuss how everything played out.  From this we anticipate that there might be a journal article or two that could emerge from the events of the day, to be determined at that point.  We will maintain a blog to document the event, and will post the submissions of each participant for discussion and citation.


Karen Tanenbaum, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
Josh Tanenbaum, Simon Fraser University, Canada
Amanda Williams, Fabule Fabrications, Inc., Canada
Matt Ratto, University of Toronto, Canada
Gabby Resch, University of Toronto, Canada
Antonio Gamba Bari, University of Toronto, Canada

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