Missoula hackathon lends support to Standing Rock protest, targets pipeline

Hackathon participants Harold Shinsato, left, Holly Stephens, center, and William Halliburton, second from right, gather early Saturday at the University of Montana. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current) 

By Martin Kidston

The small, but resolute, group that gathered Saturday morning at the University of Montana came with a single cause – to support tribal members at Standing Rock and defeat a 1,172-mile pipeline that could transport half a billion barrels of oil each day.

The protesters didn’t arrive at the Payne Family Native American Center carrying posters and megaphones, though. Rather, they came equipped with computers and ideas, sitting in a low-key hackathon arranged by William Halliburton and other supporters of the cause unfolding in rural North Dakota.

“Standing Rock is occurring right now, and there’s conceivably a lot of things we can do on the information technology side,” said Halliburton. “It’s an unconference – the point is to bring the programmers and the people together and actually talk about solutions in an open way.”

Halliburton, a self-described Taoist and lifelong programmer who believes the application of simple things can accomplish great things, was looking for ideas to support the Standing Rock cause – ideas that could then be programmed into an information system.

That could mean arranging the shipment of supplies from Missoula to North Dakota, where the protest is taking place, or helping those in the field circumvent the censorship blocks that some say have been implemented by the likes of Facebook.

“I’ve seen so much beauty and connection happen at these things,” Halliburton said. “Many of the people I’ve never met, and many of them have never thought about using information technology principles to aid in a cause.”

The protest is targeting a plan by Energy Transfer Partners to build the Dakota Access Pipeline. The $3.7 billion project extends from the Bakken oil and gas fields in North Dakota to Illinois, where the petroleum would be piped to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The route would take the pipeline under the Missouri River, just upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation. Sioux tribal members contend the pipeline threatens their drinking water, as well as sacred Native American sites.

“I’ve been against the pipeline from the beginning,” said hackathon participant Holly Stephens. “I’m a firm believer in indigenous rights, and that our country has completely fucked that up. To see that so blatantly happening again, I couldn’t resist. We have to stand up for everybody, otherwise we all fall.”

Harold Shinsato, who teaches programming with the Montana Code School, has aided in other hackathons, including a recent effort aimed at rural medicine. Collaboration has played as a strong theme in each of them, he said, and tapping the power of information technology has proved effective in creating social change.

“I believe Standing Rock is an important milestone in a way, and being able to support those folks standing up for their rights and their ability to sustain their water supply is a good thing,” said Shinsato. “This is a powerful way of helping unleash the creativity of the people who show up and not directing them in what to do.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com