A small crowd gathered here on Saturday afternoon in the basement of the Centre for Internet and Society to participate in the Aaron Swartz Memorial Hacknight, organised by HasGeek

Hackers have been coming together the world over to hold memorial services to pay tribute to the work, and the technological and political ideas that are the legacy of Aaron Swartz, who ended his life last Saturday.

A small crowd gathered here on Saturday afternoon in the basement of the Centre for Internet and Society to participate in the Aaron Swartz Memorial Hacknight, organised by HasGeek, a company that hosts technology events in the city.

For the first few hours, before getting down to the technological brass tacks of writing code and contributing to open data projects, they discussed the legacy of the young programming genius; right from co-writing the RSS standard at the age of 14 (which created a standard format for getting feeds of changing web content) to his advocacy against regressive copyright legislations and closed data regimes.

The hacknight, which commenced at 2 p.m., went on till early Sunday morning. It was meant to take forward the legacy of Swartz by coming up with projects that liberate data in the Indian context, as well as working on some of the projects and code that Swartz left unfinished.

“Besides these unfinished projects, there are a lot of ideas on political activism and running campaigns that we need to record and learn from. We also want to maintain some of the tech projects he ran,” says Kiran Jonnalagadda of HasGeek.

This motivated him, and a few others who have collaborated with Swartz on OpenLibrary.org and Internet Archive, to organise this tribute.

Most of the projects that are being worked on at the hacknight have at the core the idea that public data must be accessible and should be used for public good. For instance, one of the groups here proposed to build an interface that can extract data from the electoral rolls so that it becomes easier for citizens to check their names and coordinates on the voter ID list. Another group is working on writing code to extract simple data on passenger reservation and ticket availability to create a database that can then be used to chart simple trends. Yet another team is working on creating a similar web interface that can extract weather data using the weekly updates uploaded by the weather department.

These projects, Mr. Jonnalagadda points out, are all attempts to liberate data, much like what each of the projects Swartz initiated.

Speaking at the event, he said: “Swartz’s death bothered me quite a bit. A guy way ahead of his time, his political activism is an inspiration for many of us here who are working with open data. And we need to preserve this.”

Sunil Abraham, director, CIS, spoke about Swartz and the ethical landmines he stumbled into with the JSTOR case, where he was charged for hacking into and downloading millions of academic papers from the subscription database of JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) in 2011. He put this in the context of American foreign policy rhetoric based on Internet freedom, which restricts itself to freedom of expression and doesn’t include access to knowledge.

“This isn’t the case in India, where the Supreme Court has on various occasions spoken in favour of access to knowledge for example in the Cricket Association Of Bengal decision in 1995 where it was determined that the right to watch cricket cannot be restricted by private broadcasters or channels. This difference was why Swartz, who believed Internet freedom includes access to knowledge, was not defended by Hillary Clinton, who identifies herself as an advocate for Internet freedom.”


How MIT bucked a freewheeling cultureJanuary 24, 2013