I was nervous when I arrived on Saturday morning.
Sitting in the spacious offices of Shopify, consuming my breakfast of provided scrambled eggs and bacon, I was asked “So, if you aren’t a coder, why are you here?”.
Good question. Why was I sitting here, about to start my first ever hackathon? What did I have to offer? I am clearly in the learning stage, and don’t have any coding or web development skills, which is what was asked for. The projects had already been defined, so I couldn’t come up with an idea and do the “non-technical” side. My motivation for attending was largely to learn and experience, but as I was asked that question of “why?”, I was nervous about what could I actually offer to justify my presence and contribute to my team, as opposed to be just a burden during the short window of time to produce something useful.
It turns out, I could offer a fair bit.
The hackathon I was participating in was part of Random Hacks of Kindness. RHOK is a growing, global organization that brings people together to “make the world a better place by developing practical, open source technology solutions to respond to some of the most complex challenges facing humanity”. The concept certainly had me interested, to say the least.
The hackathon started with a pitch from pre-selected organizations, and I chose to be part of the team working on data visualization for the North-South Institute. Peder Johnson laid out the challenge that NSI wanted us to work on: use data from various APIs that relate to international development, and then present it in a visual way. As we went around the group to identify what skills we had and what we wanted to work on, I went last and said something like: “I don’t know how to do web development, but I love data and figuring out what is useful. I would like to work on figuring out what we could display out of the data that would be relevant to the world.” Peder turned to me: “That is exactly what we need”.
My nervousness vanished.
We had soon decided on a direction and an objective, and then we set to work. There were terms and tools flying around that I had no idea about and need to learn more about: git, herokuapp, bootstrap, a google chart overlay on a google map, R, Ruby (are they the same thing?) and the list goes on. I would sometimes check in on other teams as well, and they were using yet more programs: one team was programming a game for the Otesha Project using Unity.
I effectively became the holder of the vision (what was the outcome to look like?) in the group and would go back and forth between the data vis team and the API processing team, and provided the content wrapper around the eventual outcome so that it could be put into context.
In the end, we produced a map of the commitments made by Canada to different countries under the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Heath, and showing how much had actually spent towards fulfilling that commitment. We did this by taking the API from the Canadian International Development Platform that contains all the international development projects that CIDA/DFATD has implemented or is implementing, selected the subset the Government has identified as being part of the Muskoka Initiative, and then used a google chart overlay to display on a google map. The whole thing was served by herokuapp.com, which I can’t tell if it is an app repository (you ‘push’ your app to it), or acts as a website host or both.
Either way, muskoka-progress.herokuapp.com has a live, dynamically adjusting map of progress towards the Muskoka Initiative commitments by Canada.
I also obtained the domain muskokaprogress.ca for the project, which will allow our weekend hack to be a go-to-site should you desire to keep tabs on Canada’s progress, and set up a googlegroup for the team for future communication on the project.
When I returned in the afternoon on Sunday (I was in Hack UR Baubles earlier in the day) I was blown away by the final product:
It is amazing what you can accomplish in a weekend. Follow Canada’s progress at muskokaprogress.ca.