“Hack the planet! Hack the planet!”
~Zero Cool, Hackers movie, circa 1995
One of the first things that popped into my head the first time I heard the term “hack day” or “hackathon” was the movie Hackers and its band of misfit teenage hackers framed for a creating a worm virus that would steal millions of dollars. Although I knew the term “hack day” or “hackathon” had nothing to do with hackers, computer crimes, worms, or Angelina Jolie, it still sounded exciting, and somewhat underground. So of course I was intrigued, and had to know more!
Turns out, a hack day or hackathon as described by wikipedia: is an event in which computer programmers and others in the field of software development, like graphic designers, interface designers and project managers collaborate intensively on software projects. Companies like Google and Atlanta’s own CareerBuilder have implemented the practice of setting aside time for employees to put aside their current projects for a day, or specified length of time, and work on projects that interest them. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink and in his book Drive, he demonstrates how companies are finding that giving employees this “hack time” can be an important component in employees staying motivated and passionate about their work.
This all sounds great! Of course this concept sounds brilliant when you’re talking about employees who, even if given the time to work on projects they like – are still getting paid. However, does this model still work when people are not getting paid? Are people still motivated and passionate from “hacking out” a project for the greater good, on a weekend, on little sleep, with strangers, and no pay?
The answer apparently is – Yes! Starting around 2011, cities across the globe have began hosting city and government hackathons as a way to allow citizens to come together and work on websites, applications, and software that solve real city issues. On February 22-23, 2013, Startup Atlanta hosted Govathon, Atlanta’s first citywide hackathon. I signed on to participate in the event as an opportunity to gain valuable experience using my UX skills in a team environment, as well as to hopefully come away from the event with an impressive project to showcase in my portfolio. Working on a project that could potentially be used by the city of Atlanta – that was icing on the cake!
Let the Hacking Begin – Friday, February 22, 6:30 p.m.
I was one of about 100 participants who arrived at Atlanta’s City Hall around 6:30 Friday evening ready to hear the ideas being pitched, and excited to get to work. There were about 26 pitches in all from different departments within Atlanta’s city government, as well as individual pitches. Ideas ranged from mobile apps to help citizens report crimes and pay parking tickets, to applications aimed at helping citizens find a city park by amenities, or report a pothole. This being my first hackathon, I wasn’t really sure what to expect once the pitching ended. I knew I wanted to be on a fairly small team so I’d have the opportunity to exercise my user experience design skills as well as contribute to some of the coding.
All individuals that pitched ideas, city or otherwise, were given a specific location in the meeting hall to gather. The hall immediately became an active hub of participants scrambling around to market themselves to a team. Most of the ideas pitched by the larger departments within Atlanta’s city government, immediately had several people gathered around. After walking around for a few minutes I set my sights on the the presenters from the Atlanta BeltLine. I liked the idea they pitched, they had a pretty small gathering of people around them, and I was anxious to learn more.
Lisa Gordon and Jenny Odom, who both work for Atlanta BeltLine, pitched the idea and were there to insure that the BeltLine team had all the information they needed for the hackathon. The idea they pitched was for an application they could use to collect data on how people are using the Atlanta BeltLine. I presented myself as someone who could help with UX design and front-end coding. In addition to myself (Jodie – http://www.oregamimedia.com), within a few minutes the BeltLine team had a creative director (Linda – http://www.veopix.com), another UX designer/front-end developer (Nicholas – http://www.gtechsolutions.com), and a mobile strategist (Mallick). We had hoped to have a mobile developer on the team, but after several more minutes with no luck, we decided to go ahead and start working considering it was already after 9pm.
We staked out a place for our team to work and sat down with Lisa and Jenny to find out as much as we could about their needs, needs of their users, expectations, etc. before they left for the evening. During this interview process we decided a mobile app would be the best solution to the problem.
The -a-thon in Govathon
For the next hour my team iterated on the apps features, the user interface, sketched out the main screen layouts, and divided up the tasks. Considering the fact that we didn’t have a mobile developer on our team, we decided that building a simple “coming soon” website to showcase the apps main features would be the best way to spend the rest of our time and present our design.
Approximately 11 hours later, tired and proud, my team stood in front of the Govathon judges and presented our Atlanta Beltline app design. We thought we’d be able to work through the night, but ended up having to leave the building at 2 a.m. and began work again Saturday morning at 9 a.m. I had such wonderful experience working on the BeltLine team!
Participating in a hackathon was everything I’d hoped it’d be and more. The opportunity to collaborate on an innovative mobile app, work with like-minded people, and see all the creative solutions generated from all the teams was very rewarding. I also came away from the event with a great project to showcase in my portfolio!
AB – Atlanta BeltLine Mobile (Click pic to visit the demo site!)