ESH Canberra 2019

The Evidence Synthesis Hackathon is an event created to support the growth of new ideas, software and collaboration for improved evidence synthesis. The first event was held in 2018 in Stockholm Sweden and this year it was held in Canberra Australia.

Evidence synthesis is the process of converting scientific outputs – such as articles, reports and data – into reliable and digestible evidence that can inform management and policy.

How does the ESH work?

A number of people are invited from various backgrounds within evidence synthesis, either from a purely academic side, software engineer side or a little of both. There is a list of potential “problems” to solve either by writing a paper on the topic or creating software to ease the pain of the current process. As a software developer with little to no academic background, I end up trying to write software to make a specific process a little less painful.

I find this amazingly fulfilling and interesting. 1. I need to understand the problem sphere to be able to make anything useful to those that need the solution and 2. any help given is normally hugely appreciated.

What I worked on.

So the problem I found the most intriguing was the problem of grey literature research. In evidence synthesis it is relatively easy to find published literature on a given topic, and to record what the search string was used in which database, how many records were found, how many were used or not used and why.

All that is solved with expensive published databases. What if you want the same sort of transparency and repeatability for grey literature searches which can quite literally be done on any website on the internet

Our Solution

There are two parts to our solution, 1. a Google Chrome extension and 2. a web application to manage the results of the Google Chrome extension.

Google Chrome Extension

What I started working on with partner on the project, Mandlenkosi, is a Google Chrome extension that you train on the search results of the current website that you are on. It will then record the results – as JSON, CSV and potentially RIS – as well as the URL of the site and the search string used.

The reason we decided on a Chrome extension for this part of the problem is to keep the solution as generic as possible without the need to keep a library of web-scraping scripts for all possible – or most used – websites that can easily go out of date if those sites structures are ever changed. With the extension you can easily start your search, click on the extension and tell it where the 1st result item is, tag all the relevant data in that result and automatically scrape the rest of the results and pages. Even if the markup changes for the site the next time you go to it will not matter as the extension is shown each time what elements on the page you’re interested in.

Web Application

The 2nd part of the solution is to create a web application that can take the results of the Chrome extension and retrieve all the metadata around what you’ve extracted like link details, attached PDFs etc.

The way I imagine this all working is that you will also be able to select results you want to use, and discard those that you do not want to use with reasons for your decision.

The Result

There is only so much a jet-lagged, sleep-deprived person can do in three days. What we do have so far is a good proof of concept. Our code for the Google Chrome extension is available on GitHub if you want to contribute in any way. It’s still very raw and we need a lot of polish around the readme, contribution and licensing docs.

Facebook “Free”

Not so long ago I wrote about leaving Google, they are shady and their main business is around spying. They need to get more data to be able to sell more ads effectively. The more data they get, the more data they need the more nefarious they become to get that data.

Facebook is no different. Also primarily a ad selling company they need to employ pretty much the same tactics as Google. Not only is Facebook in the business of getting as much data about you as possible, but they have business and political agendas that they want to push on you.

Have a look at the recent video Project Veritas released below;

Facebook Insider Leaks Docs; Explains “Deboosting” “Troll Report” & Political Targeting in Interview

I’m still blown away by the number of stories that have come out about Facebook in the last little while with little to no impact on their business. As a society, we are so hooked on Facebook crack that we just cannot call it quits.

I think the internet needs is less social media that is BIG and more personal ones. A lot of people want Facebook to stay connected to family and friends that they cannot just quickly pop in to visit. I think being able to set up your own little social network for exactly that makes more sense that signing over all your data to an ad selling company.

I remember seeing an app not so long ago trying to tackle that very problem, JoinDiaspora*. So you can join an existing pod that is hosted by someone or host your very own and have the people you want to be involved in your pod on it. So you could make a pod for your family or friends and share confidently knowing that your data is not feeding an ad machine or being misused to guide voters in an election.

I have not used Diaspora yet but I’m not sure I have a need for one. I have been off Facebook for a while now with no regrets. You quickly get over that FOMO that you’re missing out. I also have decided not to use Instagram or WhatsApp specifically because they are owned by Facebook. I don’t know if I’m strange but I really have very little need for social media, it mostly seems fake to me.

Google “Free”

I have long been an advocate of Google, all their services “just work”. They sync up wonderfully, they’re available everywhere and best of all, it’s free!

The question, however, is, “Is using Google really free?” No, you are either buying a product or you are the product being sold. Google is not making millions on thin air, on free email clients, on free calendars, on free document services. No, they make money quite obviously on your data. Some people don’t mind the trade-off, some people do. Recently I became the part of the people that do.

It’s not really about needing to hide or being scared of what they find which is often what I hear when talking to people. Often the response is, “…yeah I don’t care because I have anything to hide…” as though I do? No, I just don’t want an advertising company having access to everything I do, say, write etc.

One of my turning points was when I got PDF documents in my email and suddenly any dates in there were in my calendar automagically or I’d get reminders to pay bills from invoices I received. Some people love that, they love Google going through all their stuff unencumbered; I don’t.

Bryan Lunduke had a great show on this not so long ago as well where he speaks about which mobile OS spies more. If memory serves me well; which it almost never does; Android calls home every four minutes and iOS calls home once a day with location information. These were phones that were not being used, just sitting on a desk.


So what am I doing now? Well, I’ve become a lot more comfortable paying for the services I need. For my email, I’ve moved to a service called ProtonMail. They offer an email service that is encrypted end-to-end. I exported all my email out of Gmail and imported them back into ProtonMail without a hitch.

ProtonMail also offers the convenience of mobile apps and if you prefer traditional desktop clients; as opposed to their web client; they have a bridge that you can use to set up your desktop clients. I have been ProtonMail mail now for almost two months and am still a happy camper.


After listening to Bryan Lunduke’s bit on “mobile spying” I also got rid of all Google’s apps on my phone. Obviously not using their services I don’t need their apps right? I mean even Google Maps, Waze etc.

I have to admit however it may be an easier job getting off Google on an iPhone that it is on any Android phone. Apple seems to be more agnostic about what you use whereas Android is a better experience when you’re full tilt into Google without any cares.


I have ended up going what I guess a lot of people consider extreme. I have no Google apps on my phone, I don’t use any of their services. I use Duck Duck Go for search. No more Chrome as my internet browser, I use Brave instead.

I have kept my Google account for now just to ensure that everyone that needs to email me has my new email address. Overall, I don’t miss Google at all.