Reflections on a Hackathon

I’ve been a software developer for many years - never a very fast or especially enthusiastic one, but reasonable enough, and I’ve made some nice mobile apps and other things along the way. Lately, I confess, I’ve lost my appetite for writing code, and looked for new things to do — I took an MSc, and then started a postgrad research degree, where I’m looking at a particular application area for blockchain technology. My “day job” has led me in to IOT, where I’m enjoying figuring out the pieces of Amazon’s Greengrass and the AWS platform, and looking forward to plugging some machine learning in. Yes, these new projects have code in them — but I think of it as exploratory code, to learn how things work — and I’m fine with that. Looking forward, I have the idea that being experienced in the wider workings of emerging tech, having hands-on skills to the level that I can understand and show how new things work, and developing academic research skills is going to be useful — to me, and hopefully to the wider world… we’ll see!

My blockchain research interest is in a field generally known as DAOs — essentially, its a way of getting groups of people to work together, hopefully fairly and efficiently, using blockchain to oil the cogs and make sure it all works out well. My path to understanding this has taken in learning about open source software and how the folk making that have operated, and most recently to crowdworking — essentially, concluding that its a good idea, poorly implemented. My working hypothesis has two parts — first that crowdworking is going to continue to be very important in an AI-rich world and that blockchain can make crowdworking work “better” — where better covers many things, to be explored (in my thesis, ultimately).

The current state of DAOs includes emerging platforms or developer toolkits in the blockchain ecosystem — projects like Aragon, DAOStack, and — are all attempting to make it easier for developers and domain experts to create DAOs or things-a-bit-like-DAOs without having to code raw blockchain smart contracts (which can be hard, and error prone). One of the interesting new platforms, Colony, recently held a Hackathon — a 20 day competition, in which remote teams formed and worked on projects using the underlying Colony framework. Its something of a win-win — Colony put up prize money and very engaged developer support, while a global army of coders worked 24/7 on the platform, and as a result found all kind of questions with the documentation and wrinkles in the platform — which the hosts can address quickly, or take back and think on for future direction.

In the early days of the Colony Hackathon I took a look, mostly out of curiosity. At the time about 60 ideas for projects had been listed, and some were still asking for help. There were a few which matched my interests, but Issue #53 particularly caught my eye. Travay [pronounced “try-vi”] was a plan to create a web app to support the development of a long-term job market in Haiti. Farah Brunache, the project lead, had connections in Haiti, and asserted that the government there was unable to provide adequate public services, whilst the citizens were able and willing to do the work. Finding a way to empower the citizens to do this work would be to the benefit of the workers, via payment, and to the community — as essential work got done. Furthermore, she was keen to offer something with more substance than just a one-time bounty payment — the goal was to create a platform which enabled people to get long-term employment through the platform, and start to get some economic growth by earning cryptocurrency (with the intent of having this largely being a USD-pegged stablecoin, rather than something more volatile). In turn, the hope was that the people who started to earn money would be able to post job offerings of their own. I piped up that I would be happy to join the project, but wouldn't be able to help with the coding — but hoped that some of my experience might help in some way. I was accepted, and off we went.

The Travay Goal — see for the full deck.

The project lead turned out to be awesome, a productive coder in a way that I have never been, and a real source of energy for the team (which turned out to be a closeknit three of us). We had a number of project conference calls, in my UK evenings and at weekends, and I was pleased that I was able to contribute some insightful thoughts, questions and suggestions, and help out on documentation and offer some encouragement. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to offer more time, and any coding help — and I think that is a lesson for me for future hackathons — I maybe do need to try and step up to the coding plate, and I definitely need to block out meaningful time to contribute. Its a challenge when you are “an older guy” with family who are used to seeing you out of office hours, but I think its what a hackathon needs to be given to work out well.

The Colony platform seemed to work out pretty well, its ways of working forced us to think through some issues and maybe not do things quite as we would have done, but the high level abstractions led us to create a good MVP and demo video in a short time. We created a starter of a Travay product that I think gives a good canvas to begin to tell the story well, and gain some traction for the idea. For me personally it was a real insight — I saw a very real problem in the world that I had never really given a thought to, and will definitely influence my thoughts, and hopefully my research can help in some small way. I think blockchain can bring benefit, through the ability to help unbanked people earn money and build credibilty and reputation if nothing else — and I really hope the project continues and gets good backing.

Judging is ongoing, with results on Friday, so fingers crossed — Go Travay!

[I’m Iain — I’m happy to connect if we have things in common!]