My First Hackathon

The National Missing Persons Hackathon held Thursday 29 October 2020 was a clear first for me. As such I wanted to record some impressions on how my military and subsequent civilian experience applied to the exercise. Could I work effectively in that space if I wanted to?

I entered the event with a few objectives in mind:

First – find out if my relatively ordinary entry level OSINT skill sets would still allow me to make a contribution.

Second – find out if my “off the shelf, non tech head” home office gear would be up to the task

Third – How do the teams work together and how forgiving would the other operators be with a beginner?

Here are some of my impressions.

First: The Skill Sets.

My experience lies more in Database Operations and Data Analytics than in Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) investigation or Cyber Security. On completing the entry level OSINT training provided by OSINT Combine I knew that my instincts regarding possible lines of investigation were sound. The old military investigation training and experience remained relevant and applicable. My “gut feelings” on what information was useful were fairly sound. I can see why military veterans with their understanding of people can excel in this space. Think of the crafty old Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who “knows where all the skeletons are” and the Private soldier who dedicates his life to trying to hide things from the RSM – both skill sets would have value in OSINT.  Lack of practice in using the hard search skills definitely slowed me down – but higher level competency would really only take time and practice.

Second: The gear. My “off the shelf non tech head home office” gear was definitely up to the job at a beginner level. Communications are a lot easier with appropriately enabled voice and video capabilities. You’ll find things easier and faster with up to date gear, but you can get by without. A non gamer –  I had some site specific software hiccups at the start which the more experienced members of my team were able to help me resolve. It is worth putting in the time to ensure the security of your setup with appropriate software and configurations well beforehand. There are plenty of relevant free or low cost public access applications and software available. Of course if you wish to be seriously competitive you need appropriate gear to support that.

Third: The Team.

The National Missing Persons Hackathon is a very forgiving environment for beginners. Although prizes for places are given, it becomes very clear very quickly that all of the volunteers are there to help where they can to assist the Australian Federal Police to gather a body of evidence to find missing persons. My team consisted of two experienced operators and two relative beginners. Thanks to our more experienced operators our end of day placing wasn’t too dismal.

Time constraints prevented our team from meeting or conducting any rehearsals before the event. Of course prior preparation and planning would have improved our results but we still managed to provide some good leads as a team. I kind of cheered a little when our judge approved my first lead.

The overall feel of the event was inclusive, positive and community focussed – people getting together to combine their skills and time for all of the right reasons. I found that my life experience was as much use to me as my professional experience.  I was surprised to find my local knowledge of some of the physical locations became relevant as well. If I can put the time in to better develop the hard skills I could definitely see myself making a contribution in the OSINT space. I had a good intuitive grasp of the basic concepts – the who, what, when, where and why questions every basic investigation needs to answer. I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

I am an amateur musician and often encounter people who try and tell me that they could never learn the new skills involved to play an instrument. I have a standard response which I now know also applies to learning OSINT skills.  Natural aptitude is only part of what it takes to be successful.

Anyone can learn the basics of playing music (or OSINT)  – it takes time, commitment, practice and dedication to do at a high level. Even Eric Clapton was a beginner once.

Give a hackathon a try if you get the chance – you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what your military training has taught you and how much you already know.

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