Ali of SpaceApps


Willow: Yeah, it’s amazing.

Ali Llewellyn: That’s awesome.

Willow: I’m totally spoiled here Ali. Everybody’s so free with their time, it’s nuts.

Ali: And they appreciate you properly.

Willow: I feel appreciated, yes. I also feel challenged an awful lot of the time.

Ali: That’s awesome.

Willow: It is. It is.

Ali: To be given an opportunity where that [inaudible 00:33] is really valuable.

Willow: Yeah. Absolutely. How is the new gig?

Ali: It’s good. It’s a lot of change. I’m glad I have Nick with me. As you know, I really love all of those guys. It’s the big shift, going from being government to being an external consultant . I don’t think I had worked with enough consultants to really realize what the consulting world was like.

Willow: It’s very different.

Ali: [laughs] I think that, for me, is the complication. The people are great. It’s hard when you’re in a position that you have to go pitch for all your work, but that’s the real world.

Willow: That’s why it’s nice to be in consulting, being a consultant for the government, because it’s often pretty steady work, but you also get to be outside of that system.

Ali: Exactly. All in all, it’s good. It’s a shift. We just had team retreat where everybody was in Colorado, and we tried not to get drowned in the floods. Did you hear the story? We got up there in the middle of the afternoon.

Willow: I didn’t know that.

Ali: We did. I was typing with Lindsey because Lindsey was doing such a great job on the docs from a digital humanitarian perspective. I was like Lindsay, we’re here. If I can talk to anybody for you, let me know.

Willow: Very cool. I bet that was very cool.

Ali: Yeah. Anyway, that’s my story.

Willow: I want to do this thing with you. I need to make sure that I sent you paperwork, which is this thing. Apparently when you’re in academia, you have to send people consent forms. [laughs]

Ali: Awesome. Is it something I’m going to have to print and scan?

Willow: You can also just do a digital signature on it, and it will be fine. Cool.

Ali: You are my BFF.


Ali: That wasn’t [indecipherable 02:55] . Hearts from the future. Yes.


Ali: I was afraid you were going to say to fax it, and I was going to cry. [laughs]

Willow: Uh-huh. I don’t even know if there is a fax machine in the Media Lab. [laughs]

Ali: Yeah, good. That’s a wonderful thing. All right. Where do I sign this thing?

Willow: Just anywhere on the last page, and you can do it after we talk. That’s totally fine.

Ali: Oh. I’m like, “I’ll sign whatever you want, Willow, no worry,” because I don’t even [laughs] have to read it.

Willow: Read it also. Some of the main points are if you are OK with this being recorded, one. Two, if you want those recordings to be for just the research or if it’s OK to publish that as well. Anything that does get published, the either notes and/or the write-up will be run by all of the participants first to make sure that they’re presented in a way that they want to be presented in.

Ali: Sure. I am fine with it all being published. I want it for exactly that reason, especially since much of the work that I would probably talk to you about, I did in the government. So I’d want to be sure that I was confident that I spoke in ways that are government-ally acceptable. [laughs]

Willow: Then let’s dive into this, and I’m going to type while you talk.

Ali: Is my sound quality OK? Because I’m outside.

Willow: Yeah, it’s fine. Then if there’s a pause between when you finish speaking and I ask the next question, it’s because I almost can do transcription in real time. But I usually have about a 30-second delay.

Ali: No worries.

Willow: So that’s why I’m zoned out and still typing on things.

Ali: Wow! I feel a little intimidated by this. This is like big time here, Willow.

Willow: [laughs]

Ali: I mean for crying out loud.

Willow: Well, you know. No, it’s not.

Ali: I wanted some Muppet flail. Yay!

Willow: Does that help? [laughs]

Ali: That made me feel so much better.

Willow: Good. I’m glad. Let’s start off with who are you, and what sorts of things are you into, both hackathons and otherwise?


Ali: Sure. My name is Ali Llewellyn. I currently work at SecondMuse as a consultant for mass collaboration. Previous to my time at SecondMuse, I worked at NASA in the open innovation program, where we focused on open government, digital strategy, and mass collaboration.

I’ve really carried over my interest in those three items with me to SecondMuse. My real interest is finding effective ways to engage people in public/private partnerships and engage citizens in mass collaboration activities that allow everybody to participate in their government, improve their community, and make a better world. I do work that’s all within that scope, and it’s awesome, [laughs] actually.

Willow: What do you think about hackathons?

Ali: I love hackathons, but I hate the word. I find that when people say hackathon, they tend to mean, “Oh, a bunch of coders sitting in a room, eating pizza, not taking a shower, building geeky things.” When you say hackathons to me, I go immediately to a community of people who figure out how to solve problems. I don’t see it as an event thing. I see it as almost a lifestyle. It’s definitely a community.

In terms of what do I think about hackathons, I think it’s a way that we can harness the collective genius of people all over the world that we really need, and that when you go and immerse yourself in the middle of that environment, it’s amazing, and it’s super encouraging to hear what people have to share and the contributions that they have to make.

Willow: [laughs] How many would you say you’ve attended and what has your goal been at different ones?

Ali: I have attended probably five hackathons, mostly as part of Random Hacks of Kindness. My role in there was, initially, as a government lead in the project. I was attending to see what people were doing with my agency’s data, share the true needs behind my agency’s problems, and help encourage people and share the information they needed to work on that body of work.

Subsequent to that, I got involved in the International Space Apps Challenge, and there have been two, so I’ve attended two. [laughs] My role in that was as the challenge manager and the project manager. Unfortunately, I have never attended a hackathon simply to hack.

I hope Willow will invite me one day, but it’s been really fun to attend it from a side of helping people find the right challenges, find the right data, and make those connections to ensure that their work is used as much as it possibly can be.

Willow: Sidebar. Let’s not forget that. It’s really hard for me to focus on the interview and not be like, “We can build things!” [laughs] You sort of already answered this, but hopefully you’ll add some clarity to it. Do you think of the events you hold as hackathons, and what do you think makes them what they are, whether that’s a hackathon or not?

Ali: Sorry, say that question again. It was unclear to me.

Willow: Do you think of the events that you hold as hackathons? The Space Apps challenge is called an apps challenge. Do you still think of it as being a hackathon?

Ali: Sorry, you’re going out. The Space Apps challenge is called an apps challenge. Do I consider it a hackathon or a differences between those two?

Willow: Yeah.

Ali: No. I consider them totally equivalent. I know that there’s technically a difference between an apps challenge and a hackathon. We wanted to call the International Space Apps Challenge a hackathon, and we were straight up overruled, but we talk about it as a hackathon.

The first year, we called it a codeathon because the government perspective was we could not endorse hackathons. By the second year, we were really excited to see the government start to understand what we meant when we talked about hackathons. They accepted that while we couldn’t put it in the name, that we could talk about it as a hackathon. I use the terms interchangeably, in this context.

Willow: [laughs] You already spoke a little bit about you think the purpose of a hackathon is, but can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Ali: Sure. We talk at NASA about Apollo 13 as the first space hackathon. It was the first space hackathon because people remember the story in Apollo 13 where they dumped out the tools they had on the table, they said we have to get this to fit into this only using this. They had a limited amount of time and a limited amount of resources.

When we talk about hackathons, we talk about solving a problem with the people you have in a room, the smartest people you can find, with a limited amount of time and a limited amount of resources. We try to see hackathons in that light, of, “Here’s what we have, here’s what we need. How can you help us get there?” For us, the key about hackathons in this sense, is doing it collaboratively.

While it’s usually developers, we have really tried to push the model as hackathons aren’t just software developers. Hackathons are makers and entrepreneurs and teachers and artists. Anybody who wants to come and add their perspective and their experience to the problem that needs to be solved.

Willow: What do the projects look like for your event?

Ali: I’m going to limit my talking about Space Apps. Is that acceptable?

Willow: Totally.

Ali: Great. The projects for our events fall in four primary categories. We have software projects, obviously. We have hardware projects that often include Arduinos, 3D printers, anything that you’re building actual hardware. We have data visualization projects, which interestingly enough, tend to be the most popular projects in terms of what people like to work on.

Then we have citizen science efforts, which is usually building a platform that people can use to crowdsource science efforts. Our projects will fall in any of those categories. I’d actually add a fifth category, is that we have a number of projects where we just put a massive dataset out there and say, “Do something awesome with it.” We love to see what happens. I’m going to go down a little path here.

In the traditional government model, you procure work by you write up a statement of what you want to see. You say, “Build me an X that does A, B, and C by this date with this much money.” Part of our vision for how we use hackathons within a government agency is really to say, “Hey government, you don’t always know what’s possible with this data or even what the most awesome thing that could eventually get built is.”

As part of changing the culture of how people use, build, and perceive technology, we’re really trying to push challenges and problem statements that say, “Here’s some data. Apply your brain power to it, and just create something new,” and really trying to seed those things back into the agency with a new perspective. Those are my favorite kinds of projects.

Willow: That’s awesome, yay! What has happened to the projects from the events you’ve been to?

Ali: What has happened to the projects?

Willow: Mm-hmm.

Ali: In terms of post-event?

Willow: Yeah.

Ali: Post-event, the initial part of the process is obviously judging. We go through all the projects. We review them. We take them back to the subject matter experts that initially wrote them, all through the agencies, and talk to them about which solutions they like, why they like them, and what it would take to make those solutions usable and implementable in an agency context.

This is a place yet that we haven’t had the time or the funding to pay as much attention as we’d like to. Basically, what happens is we take those solutions back to the lead. We review them, we make the connection with the team and help build that communication process to say if you could do these things, we could implement your project.

Last time we looked, and I’ll go look up the exact number for you, I think we were thinking we were sitting at about 70 percent of the winning Space Apps projects. So, anything that went to global judging had some impact on the agency. Either it was directly used, it changed the thought space, it was used for education outreach. About 70 percent, I believe, and I’ll double check that, is the number that we were looking at.

Willow: That’s amazing.

Ali: Not nearly enough. We really see it as wanting to fine tune those things more, but it is a beginning.

Willow: Do you think a lot of that has to do with the heavy curation and maintenance, the heavy lifting, that goes on from your end?

Ali: I think it has to do one, with funding. Not enough funding, not enough people, not enough time. Secondly, in NASA, there’s a real, “Nobody who’s a hacker could have anything to say to us about space exploration.” As we bring back awesome projects, we’re helping to change that attitude, where people say, “Well, I can’t use this. Like the only people who could ever have a meaningful commentary on this data are special scientists, all of whom work for us.”

As part of that process of changing that mindset, we’re still just having to show people new ideas again and again and again and again and say, “Do you see the possibilities yet?” It’s definitely making a difference, but we’re not there.

Willow: That’s amazing. I did not understand that.

Ali: Yes.

Willow: What do you think the attendees get out of the event?

Ali: Oh, you’re going to open this little Pandora’s Box, aren’t you? What I love about Space Apps is this. I fully believe that, for sure every nerd kid, but I would argue every single kid, grew up wanting to be an astronaut, wanting to go to space, wanting to visit NASA. I think that all of us at some point thought rockets were awesome and robots are even better.

I think that people, when we invite them to participate in this work, this is saying to them, “You can still have that connection. You are still an explorer, you can still be part of how we explore space. You may not have been an astronaut but whatever you’ve done in your life that’s part of the global body of human knowledge that we need. That’s part of what makes us explorers.”

I think that, number one, what people get out of it is that. They get direct participation in the mission of pioneering the future. Other people have said to us, “Well that’s great, NASA, but what about other agencies?” I fully believe that everybody needs to participate in making their community better. It’s why the National Day of Hacking was so successful, it’s why Random Hacks are so successful.

All these efforts to say, “You don’t just need to observe the problems, you get to be a part of changing them.” I think that’s the number one thing people have gotten out of the event. We have had a number of people who make job connections, who share their resume. We’ve had a team that got into a start-up incubator or two. We’ve had a number of teams go on and build companies together.

All of that is true, but the thing that makes me passionate about Space Apps is that everyone is an explorer and that’s not a shallow tagline that we put on a sticker and plaster all over the place. It’s something real and true and meaningful that I think everybody needs and will re-inspire our nation about space, but about citizenship. How beautiful is that?

Willow: I heart you.


Willow: I’m so glad these don’t have to be formal interviews because I can’t quite go on. You’re wonderful. I heart your heart.

Ali: You’re wonderful.

Willow: Tell me your favorite story from an event.

Ali: My favorite story from an event. I have so many, Willow. I think that probably my favorite story this year is that the first year of Space Apps, I went to Jakarta, Indonesia and participated at the event held at the embassy there. It wasn’t only their first Hackathon, it was their first internally-held tech event ever. We had new staff, we had people who were very unfamiliar with the space and they jumped in, they did great, and I was super proud of them.

My favorite story becomes this year. I went to the event in Singapore and I got on a video chat between Singapore, Jakarta, Indonesia, Antarctica, and I believe the fourth group was in Australia. I watched this team that we had started in Jakarta just blossom. They didn’t only run an amazing event, they ran side events that they were monitoring over video in the villages so that people in the villages could directly participate.

Then they bused those teams in for an award ceremony. They coordinated everything. They got the vision. I think my real favorite story comes from teams like that that we watched step uncertainly into the space, because of the NASA name and that sounded good in terms of a PR story, but then they saw the value.

Not in whatever branding we put on it, but they saw the value in what the community was doing and then they reached out and they’re connecting with everyone and making it happen and taking it way further than I could ever take it from NASA. Taking it way further than we had even asked of them.

Just sitting on that call with them, watching them talk to Antarctica, to the South Pole, watching them lead and listen, I think was probably, this year, one of my proudest moments. That’s probably my number one. The other story I will tell had to do with a team that was in the Dominican Republic this year. It was in, I believe, Azua de Compostela.

We were working with this team in the Dominican Republic that really wanted to participate and we realized, going weeks into the event, that they had very low registration on the website. I kept reaching out to the leads trying to say, “What’s going on, what do you need, how is this happening?” We realized they had almost no personal Internet access available in this community.

Then I start to be worried of how can they participate, how can they collaborate, what can they do together? This group ended up saying we perceive ourselves as hackers and problem-solvers and we don’t need the Internet or computers to make that possible. We’re going to make bracelets, we’re going to build models, we’re going to do all these things to communicate within our community how we can be part of what’s happening there.

I had another team of high school kids in Haiti who had the second Hackathon ever in Haiti, who were reaching out by phone to this team in the Dominican Republic trying to connect with them because they realized they couldn’t do it online but they found other ways to build connections and relationships. Everybody wanted to be a part of shaping how we explored space.

I think that was probably my other proudest story of seeing these people find ways on their own, not led by us at NASA but saying, “We want to be a part of this and if we don’t have the Internet we’re still going to be a part of this and we’re going to make it awesome.” That team in the DR really inspired me.

Willow: That’s amazing.

Ali: Yes, seriously.


Willow: It’s good. Do you want to pause for a second while you do that? Go for it.

Ali: I’m just going to go inside so I can plug in. It’s louder inside but there’s electricity.

Willow: OK. We only have two questions left.

Ali: Perfect. Say hi.

Nick: Hi, Willow.

Willow: Hi, how’s it going?

Nick: Good to see you.

Willow: Good to see you, too.


Ali: Is the noise really bad in here or is it OK?

Willow: No, it’s OK. It’s alright.

Ali: I will sit right here and we will continue. Go for it.

[TV playing in background]


Willow: Next question is do you see yourself as part of a wider movement?

Ali: [pause] Oh my goodness. Do I see myself as part of a wider movement? Yes, necessarily. I, as a person from a non-technical background, when I came to go to my first hackathon, my mind kept saying, “I’m not a hacker, I don’t have a role here, I’ll just go and be an observer. ”

My first hackathon in Philly when I met people who said, “No, no, no, we need your skills and your attributes and your experiences to make this awesome,” opened up this whole vision for me that hacking was about all of us. It wasn’t about who could develop, it wasn’t about who were the subject matter experts. It was about us all figuring out together what the problem space looked like and then us all doing our part to move the whole Earth into a better place.

Yes, I definitely see the wider movement of people who are passionate about being a part of making the world better, for sure. Like Willow, who inspires me.

Willow: I’m not going to quote that, but thank you. [laughs] I’ll type it. I have to type the whole thing later, anyway. Do you think that that wider movement is accomplishing that goal of making things better?

Ali: All I got was accomplishing. I hope you can hear me better than I can hear you. I definitely think that the wider movement is accomplishing these things. Nothing makes me angrier than people who are like, “The hackathon movement is burned out, nobody wants to hack anymore, and it’s just stupid, people are just building things that don’t go anywhere. It’s like a two-day love fest with pizza.”

Those things are certainly true in certain spaces. There are events that are run like that and there are people who are feeding, I think, that incorrect public perception. I fully believe that the wider movement is accomplishing these things. One example of where I get really inspired about this is my friend Willow runs this thing called the Digital Humanitarian Group.

I have never been so inspired in what’s possible in the hacking world as I sat on the phone with these people all over the world who are saying, “We specialize in disaster and we specialize in government and we specialize in education and here’s what we’re doing, what are you doing and how can we do those things together?”

Every time I walk through this movement of people who are full of generosity of spirit and who say, “We’re in this to support each other, not to build kingdoms or claim territories, not to say look what I built, but really to say this is why we can be part of the solution and not be part of the problem.” I try to hold out numerous examples of this because it really offends me when I hear people blow off hackathons.

“We don’t want to do a hackathon, that doesn’t accomplish anything.” It doesn’t accomplish anything if that’s how short-sighted your vision is. If you have a vision to say a hackathon isn’t an event, a hackathon is a community of people and it’s the people who shepherd solutions forward because they’re committed to them, not just because they’re a PR stunt. Those are the kind of ways that we’re going to change the world together. How was that?

Willow: You’re great. You’re so eloquent and excited and inspiring.

Ali: It’s my friends at Geeks Without Bounds who taught me everything I know.

Willow: Oh, shucks. You taught us, too.

Ali: Seriously. My first hackathon was that RHoK I went to in Philly and it was Mike Brennan’s first hackathon. It just cracks me up when they did Philly SNAP. It just cracks me up to look back at that and think of how new so many of us are to this process but how committed we are to helping shepherd it forward. It’s all because I have the GWOB coin of power. Oh yeah.

Willow: Those things are so great.

Ali: I’ll say this, too, I’m just telling you, it doesn’t have to be official. You would be super inspired, Willow. We had this event last week at JPL called Launch. Launch is NASA and Nike and State and USAID and it’s collaboratively resourcing technology innovations and shepherding them forward. Here’s why I believe in hackathons.

We did one on water innovations. We did health and energy and waste and all these things. This one was about materials science. They had this amazing woman named Suzanne Lee from the UK who basically has this company called BioCouture, who had figured out how to use a tub full of enzymes to grow clothes. She’s awesome.

Everybody was doing these amazing projects and pitching them, and Suzanne gets up on the stage and basically turns around and says, “Look, these innovations are amazing.” She got invited to be a TED fellow based on this awesome innovation that she built.

She said, “But I don’t want to do that. What I want to do is draw the community together so that we’re not innovating separately. We’re innovating collaboratively. I want to help resource and network an open source movement of makers who are going to use materials as a way to solve problems. I know it’s happening in a one-off way, but nobody is stepping out and creating a space where we could solve problems based on our communal skills.”

I’m crying listening to her. The fact that she sees why that’s important and is willing to lay down that technology innovation to help lead a community into that, that’s why I believe in the hackathon movement. It’s people who have that vision and that clarity to say, “This is why it’s important not only that we innovate, but that we innovate cooperatively, collaboratively, and as a community, and that that’s the only way we’re going to actually change an industry.”

She inspired me. You would have loved it.

Willow: [laughs] That is awesome. Thank you.

Ali: Yay!

Willow: Yay! Do you have anything else you want to…

Ali: What else can I do for you?

Willow: Just let me know if you have anything else that you’re excited about that you want to be sure you have a chance to say.

Ali: I have lots of things that I’m excited about, Willow. Yay!


Wrap Up

Ali: I just need to fill out that one form and email it back to you. Is there anything else you need?

Willow: Nope. That’s it.

Ali: OK.

Willow: Thanks, Ali.

Ali: Do you need me to pester my comrades, or are you going to pester them just fine?

Willow: If you want to pester them, if it’s easy for you. If not, then I’ll pester them in a couple days.

Ali: OK. Well, I will happily help pester them. [laughs]

Willow: OK. Thank you, Ali. It’s good to see you and good to talk to you.

Ali: All right, well, keep in…

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