An Overnight Hack-a-Thon: sleeping on the floor and political engagement

I spent the weekend in Lund at OpenHack, a reasonably large hack-a-thon composed of mostly students from LTH (Lund Tekniska Högskolan), coming together to “code for humanity.” It was my first “real” hack-a-thon, the first time coding until I had nothing left to give, the first time going from project idea to plan to execution. All on a shoestring budget of both time, resources and, let’s be honest, skillset.

Some highlights:

  • My team! I went to OpenHack alone, which apparently no one else did. The concept of the solitary programmer typing away in the night has been shattered once again. Most everyone came with colleagues or classmates. I put my name on a list and hoped for the best. When I showed up in the room, I found I was working with four third-year computer engineering students. They were rad, but weren’t so great at building stuff yet.
  • Sleeping on the floor. I’ve always loved summer camp — that feeling of staying up all night chatting and being awake long after normal and the weird quiet of 4am and how strange it is to not be sleeping at that time. I got some of that at this hack-a-thon, and also way much grogginess from sleeping super-crap every day.

Actually, I slept in our assigned conference room the second night because it was bone-chillingly cold in this giant room downstairs. I think the building must turn off the heat on the weekends or something. No quantity of flimsy IKEA blankets could provide enough insulation for that floor.

  • Pitching! After we built the thing, it was time to present it to everyone — talk through our idea and see how it did on a stage. We got a few relevant questions and people seemed to understand, for the most part, what we were building.

Our App

So, what were we building?

TakeAction: A mobile platform to foster political engagement around humanitarian causes.

My favorite part of the slides:

The point of the app was to provide curated content from a “trusted source” — in this case the nonprofit ActionAid, who had requested some kind of technology to improve user engagement on humanitarian causes. Users would determine which interests they wanted to read about, and which geographical areas concerned them. Then ActionAid, or whoever they trusted to do so, would create content and push it out to users — articles, events, and other news items of interest. Users could then see a relevant list of actions they could take to help: calling their legislator (with a phone number ready to dial), an email address to send with a template, an event to sign up for, a text to retweet.

The idea behind our app is that we spend all day getting incensed over news items on Facebook. And if someone sends around a petition — sure, we’ll sign it. But how often do we take any real action? This app would aim to pair up people who are already interested in doing more with those who know which actions will have the most impact.

The best part of all of this is that the guy from ActionAid loved our app! He said he was going to take our presentation and try to get funding to actually build it. That’s pretty rad, right?

Technical Stuff

The students had been learning Java and some of them had a bit of experience in Android Studio, so we used an Android app for our client. If I had any real experience with Android, we probably would have just stuck with fake data and built only the client. But I’m a back-end developer, so I figured I might as well make a contribution where I can do the most good — creating the back-end database and exposing an API.

My back-end included a way to generate articles and also a way to edit the actions so that you could associate a particular phone number to call with an article or event. That way you can customize the tweets to retweet or the event details for a demonstration.

I also exposed two APIs — one for the news items / articles and one for the actions associated with each item. We only ended up consuming the first API, but the second is just waiting there for someone to pick up the baton.

Some more photos:

On the train down to Lund. It was like 3pm. Sweden can be a really depressing place in the winter.

There were really quite a lot of folks at the hack-a-thon — something like 60. Though I heard later that 120 or so had signed up. This is to be expected. It was free and they provided food and shelter, so obviously half the people will just be no-shows. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

Hard at work in our conference room.
Our LoFis from Friday night.

Things were a little weirder at night. For instance, around 12:30 on Saturday, they brought in all these falafels. The 24-hour live-stream included about twenty minutes of the guys discussing the falafels, then another 20 minutes of them actually eating the falafels. It was surreal.

Lessons Learned

  • Come with a team or cajole the conference organizers into putting you somewhere logical. Find the “singles’ table” of coding teams.
  • Treat the idea as the important part and the construction of the thing as secondary.
  • All anyone cares about it what it looks like, even if they’re technical.
  • Don’t bother bringing your yoga mat. They’re going to provide and it’s not going to be intense, sweaty yoga anyway.
  • Bring extra socks. It’s cold at those office buildings.
  • Don’t bring snacks or drinks. They stuffed us full of junk food the entire time.

So did we win?! No, we did not win. As I mentioned, our app was pretty damn ugly. Even if we had one of the more solid and do-able ideas, if I can manage to say so myself without being a total dick, our app looked like ass, so it was never going to pick up any love. But that’s no problem. Our sponsor loved it, and that’s good enough for me.

Links, for those weird enough to be interested

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