Coding and Decoding at the ZOOHackathon – Lauren Neville

This week’s readings paralleled my experiences this weekend and helped me better understand the layers of abstraction and message coding involved in the making process. I spent the whole weekend at the National Zoo and the first annual ZooHackathon intended to bring designers and coders together to build solutions to illegal wildlife trafficking. The first night of the hackathon, we were given statements of how leaders in the wildlife field would like to combat illegal wildlife trade.

We were then sent off to form teams of engineers and designers to begin finding solutions to this problem. After discussing the problems, my team chose to create a phone app connected to email and Whatsapp for the law enforcement agents working in Uganda to use. They had expressed that the work they do is often very dangerous and that they would want a way to communicate that they were in danger to each other in a swift way. We ended up designing an app that at the touch of a button would send a prescripted panic message and your geolocation to everyone else connected to your team.

This app simplified the tedious process of writing a string of letters and sending individual messages to different members of your team with your location when you are in immediate danger. It revolutionized the law enforcement messaging system just by having a preprogramed system ready and updating it’s own information constantly from mapping technology.

This is the great affordance of the bit and digital technology. As stated, “Information theory [and digital encoding] works because we can reliably represent and reconstitute the material components of shared symbols.” I spent the weekend not writing their message, of course, but actually writing the message of that system into the computer to then display to them.

Using Javascript and Boolean Logic, I was able to write text write in components that asked the user to type in the phone numbers they eventually wanted the numbers to go to. Then I defined that component by stating “multiline: true” and “editable: true.” Javascript is a layer of language between the human and the computer. I was writing boolean logic statements into the software program, but of course these readings helped me remember that all of the components under the layers of Javascript were also written at a different time as a bit boolean logic statement.

The complex layering of messaging that went into just building another communication messaging system during this hackathon was truly amazing. Of course, I understand that none of the meaning within this project was an actual property of this data that I was using to relay instructions. “Meaning is not ‘in’ the system; it is the system,” was a very relevant point that I took from Introducing Information Theory. I was understanding that the meaning was our relationship to the instructions, our intentions, the designs we conceptualized.


Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 507-17. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information

James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2011).