Summer 2015 Hackathon Wrap Up

Or, throwing a party when you’re not certain anyone will show. But then they do. And wow.

On Friday of this week, I was helping a member of our leader team (Hi John!) get supplies out of his car. At one point, hands full and realizing I needed to go back for another armful, he just handed me his car keys. That seems like a simple, pragmatic gesture; but to me, having only met in an official capacity with our Brigade six times prior, it was a symbol of trust. It kicked off the weekend for me. It was almost as awesome as Saturday.

When Anita and I — also co-founders and operators of Tiny Goat Studio in Greensboro — looked at joining a Brigade here, we were shocked that one didn’t already exist. We decided to do it ourselves, if for no other reason than it would put us in a room with people who did what we do for a living. We joined Co//ab for similar reasons, and that was a rewarding decision.

Our first public interest meeting was a huge success. We were graciously invited by the organizer of another local technology meetup (Hi Brendan!) to talk about what we wanted to do. Since then, we’ve grown substantially. We’ve made inroads with our city, and have made some meaningful relationships there just by announcing our intention to start a dialogue. We were prepared for that to be a lot harder.

But groups are not without their challenges. As a civic group with a large technology component (and not the other way around) one of our biggest opportunities is to mobilize non-technical citizens and find them places to shine. The trick is to not marginalize them the way they might be in a technical company — so we don’t want to automatically assume they’ll only be our bug trackers and beta testers. We’re still working to find ways to get them engaged and keep them that way. Luckily we have Code For Raleigh to look to for guidance and suggestions as we get under way.

I mentioned doing a hackathon to Anita just a scant fourteen weeks ago. That’s not enough time to do much of anything with a large group, let alone a hackathon. Somehow, with the full and absolute support of every single member of our team, we made it happen. Not only that, it was a success. Every time a registration was completed online, it sent a notification into Slack for us to see. Imagine our collective surprise on the days that three or four people registered, especially for people worried we would build it and they wouldn’t come.

On Saturday at 9:30 AM, Anita, Jason and I stood around in the space nervously waiting for folks to show. Soon we were a full house, boasting an attendance of 40 at our busiest time. Our municipal partner and CIO of the City of Greensboro, Jane Nickles, came to see what we were up to. Jeff Thigpen, the Register of Deeds of Guilford County, came to talk to us about the importance of open data and governmental transparency. And we had teams working on various aspects of projects for both days, some of which will become brigade work into the summer.

Jeff Thigpen speaks to participants on Day 1 of the Code for Greensboro Civic Hackathon, June 6, 2015

Support and sponsorship came out of the woodwork from local businesses. We also had the diligent efforts of our leaders and members to thank for making meals appear, securing printing and other necessities. And we had the people at Co//ab, who graciously lent us their entire space (and North State’s stupid fast internet) for the whole affair.

We’ve learned a ton by doing this. I’ve worked as a mentor at hackathons, nibbling around the edges of their construction, but never been involved in every step. It’s a lot of work. It’s also very rewarding. I may not have gotten as much code written or as much design produced as I had hoped; but on the other hand I think we were able to make our pitch to our fair city: we’re here to lend our talents however we can to make a more equitable and open city. And we have many pairs of hands to lend.

— Nick Jones

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