28 hours to hack happiness
“Happiness is like a butterfly,” American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote. “The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” That wisdom may indeed be true – 155 years after his death, and people are still stomping after that butterfly, waving nets in every direction. Technology hasn’t always been helpful in this – indeed, it may not be a coincidence that while Google searches for “How can I be happy?” are as old as the service itself, they took a sharp uptick between 2008 and 2011 – the period in which smartphones became all-conquering.
Nonetheless, if there’s one hope for hacking happiness, it comes from the smartphone. They’re almost universal, about our person at all times, and packed so full of sensors that they should be more than up to the challenge. If happiness can indeed be hacked, then our cellular companions seem like a decent place to start.
With that in mind, I visited Digital Catapult’s offices last night 24 hours into a 28-hour Hacking Happiness hackathon, just as the seven teams were preparing to make their final pitch to the team of judges. Each team had spent the last day using datasets from a number of sources including The Guardian’s Open Platform, the Office for National Statistics and BioBeats to come up with their solutions. And while it’s fair to say that some of the ideas weren’t fully formed (give them a break, they only had 24 hours to fix something that has troubled humans since the social construct was invented), there were certainly some interesting talking points.
Two interesting examples used current London happiness metrics as their starting point. The first – titled Route 2 Happiness – took aim at our mapping technologies’ focus on the efficiency of getting from A to B, without stopping to consider how pretty C, D and E might be. Another prototype online tool allowed those migrating towards London an insight into the ideal borough for them, with a series of sliders allowing them to prioritise their most important factors, from transportation and greenery to financial issues. “It can be implemented into commercial tools like Rightmove and Zoopla,” one of the presenters explains. “Might boroughs be offended not to be considered happy?” an audience member asks. Well, maybe that’s an incentive for them to improve – although it’s fair to say the project’s name – Borough Metre – works better when read out loud. Borough-metre. Barometre. Y’see?
That wasn’t the only pun on display, either. Instagrat is a project that aims to deal with the problem of demoralised and disaffected workers. “It’s a simple tool that detects your mood and then provides you alleviating tips and recommendations,” explains one of the brains behind Instagrat. “It works based on facial-recognition and galvanic skin-response technology. It uses that to detect your mood and then deliver you a personal gratification.” Grati, an avatar buddy, will suggest breaks from work based on your personality when it detects your stress levels peaking. In this prototype, more often than not, it was in the form of cat GIFs, but the potential is there for more, if cats aren’t your jam.
Disconnect worked on a similar theme: using AI and deep learning to filter out notifications from outside of office hours. Ideal for those not living in France, the presenters suggested. But my personal favourite involved a little more thinking outside the box, following the idea that happiness involves stepping outside your comfort zone and exposing yourself to new things.
Extra Wurst (the name comes from one team member’s nostalgia for German comfort food) takes the idea of personalised music playlists, and democratising them depending on who’s in the room. If you have the app on your phone, and you go into an empty coffee shop that supports it, say, the room will play songs that you like. But if someone else comes in, also with the app, the algorithm will try and pick a song that “gently challenges” both of your tastes – something the team calls “comfortable conflicts”. If you love punk, and your new neighbour is into country, say, the algorithm may treat you both to some Johnny Cash or Tom Waits.
Brilliantly, as you move through different parts of the city, you get an “audio footprint” of the tastes of that region. The concept even suggests that when you join a house party, the next song to play should be one of your favourites, to emulate that happy feeling of being in the right place at the right time (although if your favourite song happens to be the full 8:41 version of “Purple Rain”, the other guests may be less thrilled). Sure, it’s hard to see how the idea would avoid becoming a muddled mess with more than a handful of people, but it’s an interesting concept, and the team thinks it could be moved from the contentious world of musical taste to the even more contentious world of politics. “We think that using systems to gently promote potential conflicts as a way of broadening horizons inside of music is a nice proving ground for figuring out the best way of approaching these areas in more significant fields,” explained Extra Wurst’s presenter.
For now, though, it’s just about starting conversations and influencing people on a smaller scale. “The system might not play black metal at Christmas dinner, but it might play something a bit heavier than Grandma was expecting.”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the room when the winners were announced – although I later learned that Route 2 Happiness had won, with Borough Meter in second and Instagrat in third. I wasn’t in the room because I had to go and indulge in my own form of happiness: being on the losing end of a 11-0 defeat at five-a-side. It just goes to show that when it comes to happiness, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all.