Lessons Learned at SPARK 2017

It’s crucial to care for people and practices ahead of the tech

Mozilla recently partnered with St. Anne’s-Belfield School (STAB) in Charlottesville, Virginia, to organize the second annual SPARK youth hackathon. SPARK is a regional event, hosted by STAB, for teens interested in design and technology. In its first year, it drew in 45 students from 6 area high schools. This year, 66 students from 12 area high schools attended and worked alongside 35 mentors and volunteers from local, national, and global organizations like the University of Virginia’s Biomedical Engineering Department, the Center for Open Science, and Mozilla. Mozilla brought 6 mentors to share their expertise in design, education, project management, and technology. Sponsors of the event each pitched a problem statement for groups of students to tackle throughout the weekend. The hackathon ended with a demo fair that was open to the community and attracted an audience of over 90 parents, educators, professionals, and media.

SPARK attendees at work

Mozilla partnered with STAB to focus this year’s hackathon on the Internet of Things (IoT), the exploding ecosystem of connected devices and sensors all around us that make it easier than ever to interact with our environment. Those interactions come with a cost, though. We give up some of our privacy to the machines and companies that interact with us. Mozilla believes in an IoT in which users are aware of those trade-offs and have control over the privacy settings of the devices they buy, make, and use.

We asked SPARK participants to imagine their own solutions to problems of privacy and trust on connected devices and to build IoT networks that let them pursue their interests without being forced to sacrifice their privacy.

Five teams took up our challenge and produced projects like these that reflected participants’ purposefulness in building networks they would use and trust in their daily lives:

  • Cloud Hugs, a connected devices platform that lets people who suffer from mental illnesses share their needs with their support networks at the touch of a button on a key-chain or dog-tag-like pendant.
  • Neighbor 2 Neighbor, a matchmaking app that connects neighbors and builds a community “score” around sharing and passing on resources within a neighborhood.
  • Quick Pick, a matchmaking app that only collects data about what sport you’d like to play when and then finds other people in the area available for a pick-up game.
  • Trendi, a social shopping app that alerts you to popular items bought by friends and others you follow.
  • Ufund, a matchmaking app and connected device beacon that alerts and connects you to organizations you support in your community, other organizations like those your support that are nearby, and local merchants that offer discounts to people who use the app to donate to local organizations.

Our participation in SPARK was driven by our desire to iterate on a set of evolving event-planning practices developed by our convenings team, Open IoT Studio, and Hive communities. Very generally, we’re developing a set of practices that focus on

  • Amplifying the impact of allied leaders and communities throughout our network.
  • Co-designing locally partnered events that champion internet health and reflect shared values.
  • Supporting the professional development of “Mozillian” mentors who attend and organize events.
  • Building relationships between mentors that result in cross-team collaborations after the event.
Community members at the SPARK demo fair

With those broad goals in mind, here are some takeaways from SPARK 2017!

  • Be a good partner. Deepen existing relationships by delivering on your most ambitious commitments. Ask your partner for feedback on your work. Be fully present in the planning, organizing, and facilitation of the event.
  • Take care of your mentors. Discover what your mentors expect and want from the event. Recognize their contributions by making sure they get what they need to learn and grow professionally from participating. Run a mentor jam to build camaraderie and connections between them.
  • Make time and space for talk. Stay off of autopilot once the event begins. Frequently check in with your mentors, partner, and attendees to see how things are going. Build in moments to assess, evaluate, and improve what’s happening.
  • Document everything. Make sure someone serves as your organizational learning lead. Collect interviews, photos, and video of the event. Documentation is the fuel you need to drive improvement and iteration next time.
  • Pay attention to how you begin and end things. Foster a spirit of collaboration rather than competition. Use equitable ways to form teams and celebrate success. Have a clear problem statement and make sure participants understand the constraints of their work and the criteria used to assess it.

We’ll continue to debrief and reflect throughout the month (and as part of future events!) and share what we learn. There will always be room for us to make our contributions more delightful, equitable, and relevant for partners building a healthy internet with their home communities.

How are you partnering with local leaders to plan events that help youth design the future? What have you learned about effective mentorship models at hackathons and sprints? How do you think we might improve our practices further? Let us know @MozLearn and #teachtheweb!