Interview Series: In Conversation with BiblioTech Hackathon Participants

The following is an interview between Alisa Grishin, Artes Research intern 2022-2023, and André Davids, BiblioTech Hackathon participant and employee at KU Leuven Libraries Economics and Business. The hackathon took place in March 2023. It was a 10-day event and included a pre-hackathon orientation moment called “Meet the Data, Meet the People.” André’s group, the Demographic Dynamo, worked on the historical census dataset. You can learn more about the team’s project by having a look at their project poster in the BiblioTech Zenodo community. To read more about the hackathon and the results, you can visit the BiblioTech website.

three men stand facing one another; two receive a paper certificate from the third

André Davids and Stijn Carpentier, two members of the Demographic Dynamo team, receiving their prize from Demmy Verbeke, jury member.

What first interested you in the hackathon? Have you done one before? What is your background?

It was my first hackathon. I saw an advertisement about it and thought it looked interesting, but I didn’t subscribe because I didn’t have a technical background. I was convinced by Nele Gabriëls who enthusiastically encouraged me to join. As I provided one of the datasets, industrial countings from the 19th century in Belgium, I was already familiar with some of the data. At the time this dataset was created, Belgium had a top class statistician, Adolphe Quetelet, and the Belgian statistics were the first that were open to the public and for research. The Belgians were the first to make this type of data available for research. It became a model for many other countries. This is also why it’s interesting to other countries to see the Belgian countings. So I’ve been converting these over to Excel files and universities often contact me regarding this dataset. I wanted to see the potential up close of using a dataset like this for researchers from Belgium and abroad.

I started working at KU Leuven Libraries in January 2000. It was mostly by coincidence. I graduated with a degree in Information and Library Science and then came to Leuven to fully learn Dutch. By coincidence, I found a job at KU Leuven; it was actually my first job interview. My first task was to be at the information desk, and then I switched to cataloging and then acquisition. Now I do digitization. So, I’ve been here for 23 years, but my job is always changing; there was never a day when I didn’t want to come to work.

What was your primary concern when beginning the project?

My primary concern before seeing who was in my group was that our group wouldn’t have enough technical skills to do something nice. My group was made up of mostly researchers, and I saw very quickly that I was a bit ad hoc and that they knew a lot. We started on our project quite late. At the beginning, we weren’t sure what to do with the data and had to make a selection. I was already very familiar with the data, so I helped them select the tables. 5 days after we received our datasets, we had a meeting and decided what to do with it. At the beginning, I was a bit stressed because time was passing and we didn’t have a concrete goal. After that meeting though, we found direction. So even though we were starting late, the technical members were very efficient.

How did you establish your methodology and approach to the data set? Were you inspired by any other platforms or projects?

Nope. The teammate who came up with the idea we went with had a dynamic map of Belgium, so she said we could adapt that. Then we looked at the data to see what could be used for the map. We saw that we had tables that showed internal Belgian migration. By putting this on a map, you could watch how people moved from one place, such as Brussels, to another. It was actually quite impressive to me.

What was the brainstorming process like for this project?

At the “Meet the Data, Meet the People” event, we actually spent most of the time coming up with a name [laughs]. We didn’t have a lot of ideas at the first meeting. And it took a few days to find that direction. But since I knew the data, I was able to share my knowledge with the team.

Were there any obstacles the team had to overcome?

Well, some of the members were absent because they were attending conferences. The people who were the strongest technically were not able to be at the closing event where we presented the project. I could speak mostly to the data, but luckily Stijn volunteered to present since he already does that pretty often. I told him he should be a salesman [laughs]. We were worried that there would be more technical questions. Neither of us could really speak to the code, but luckily the questions didn’t go there.

What was your role in the project and how was it different/in line with what you were expecting?

I don’t know what I expected. I had no idea what the outcome would be. I was pleasantly surprised that we had a dynamic product. But given the time frame, I wasn’t expecting to do something like that. Still, it was nice to see how quickly people with a technical background can do something.

What advice would you give to someone who is hesitant to participate in a hackathon due to their background?

I was initially afraid since I don’t have a lot of technical skills. But now I would say that everyone has something that they can bring. In my case, I knew the data and was willing to put a lot of time into the project. But if someone mentioned to me that they didn’t want to participate because of their technical skills, I would just say “[it] doesn’t matter. Other people will have the technical skills.” Just the fact that someone is willing to participate means that they will have ideas to bring and can contribute in their own way.

Did you apply any skills from your career to the project? Did you take away any knowledge you can now use for your job?

I didn’t really get new technical skills since I didn’t really have any preliminary technical knowledge. When we started working on the industrial counting project, though, we were focused on the numbers, not the categories. Eventually, as a researcher, I decided to start working on the categories. So I started using color codes for the tables and when doing this project, my teammate said that this actually helped him a lot with the code. So now, in the context of my work, I make sure to use the same colors since it will help the people working on the data in the future.

Also, last week, two researchers came to me and were asking for new volumes. I showed them our dynamic map because even though they need the volumes, showing our map shows them the possibilities of the industrial data.

What are some benefits of a hackathon for someone with a career in the GLAM sector?

It was a nice experience. Because we won the hackathon it was nice to have that, as well. It was nice to see that the data we had been working on could produce a winning project. But even if we hadn’t won, I would have come away with a good feeling. Even though I’m quite competitive [laughs], in this case, I was just happy to have something to show. The census data is usable for a ton of different fields and faculties and there was already interest in the data. So there’s still a lot of potential in the development of that. And it’s nice to see that people are interested in the data and what we generated even before this project.

What kind of tips, as the winning team, would you give to a team doing their first hackathon?

I feel that, in this case, winning was not our main objective. If we had more time, we could have done a lot. Just have an enjoyable experience and don’t think too much about winning. I’m not even sure if we would have had a better project if we had wanted to win in the first place. I don’t think we would have because of the pressure. But even if I could restart and pick a team, I would still work with this team and this dataset.

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