Local developers wrote code to solve pressing issues in the community at Hack for a Cause. Volunteers worked from the evening of April 26 until noon on April 28. They used software to fix social problems. Some developers came for the cash prize, some came for the free food, but in the end all the efforts contributed to a humanitarian cause.
Software company, Nulia and the Technology Association of Oregon hosted the event in a downtown office building. Companies who are struggling with modernizing facets of their businesses presented their issues, such as digitizing data recorded on paper, as something that can be improved by programming. Developers were treated to an endless supply of soda and snacks to help burn the midnight oil. Creating an inviting atmosphere has made Hack for a Cause grow, now the largest hack-a-thon in Oregon, for the past four years.
Developers came together to solve problems presented by local governments, civic organizations and nonprofits. These volunteers could choose an issue to work on or be assigned one.
After receiving an assignment, the next hurdle for the developers would be to form a team.
This was the second year for Frankie Gold, who signed up alone. Gold has a day job as a database engineer and knew she wanted to be working in the Google programming language “Go.” The mentors and coordinators knew the perfect fit for her and set her up with a group of two, that then grew to six people. They dubbed themselves Xakclub.
The team’s end goal was to create a homeless resource finder application and website. The final site would be for the less fortunate to find a nearby shower, a place to sleep or a food bank, and find out the wait times for the various services. The database with that information exists already, the challenge was to make the data accessible.
With a team, objective and plenty of Mountain Dew, the team began by assigning roles. May Tusek, whose role was to work on the front end user interface for the application, has a personal interest in the homeless resource finder challenge.
“I’m homeless myself,” Tusek continued, “if you come from a background of being poor, or just from awful anything, and you end up being homeless it’s really hard to find your footing,” Tusek said. “This one I feel like can be a really awesome resource for individuals.”
There is no precise data that shows the percentage of homeless with smartphones yet, getting smartphones to the homeless has been an ongoing endeavor. A program called Lifeline Assistance, or sometimes referred to as ‘Obama Phones,’ puts smartphones in the hands of the less fortunate.
Knowing the majority of those cell phones operate on Android systems, the Xakclub team designed their application to run on those phones.
After the excitement of the first day, teams settled into their private conference rooms to refine ideas and start building the framework of the application. In a competition atmosphere teams were frantically trying to outrace their competitors, working by the light of their own LED screens into the early morning hours.
The team members took shifts napping while others worked, but nevertheless, fatigue pushed the developers to their limits. This wasn’t just a humanitarian effort, but a chance to improve the developers’ skills.
“I started doing Hack-a-thons because I wanted to have some projects to show extracurricular work,” team member Jake Petersen said. Collective learning was a theme throughout the weekend.
A programming history was not required of volunteers, and some used this opportunity to build new skills.
Gold came with a plan in mind. “My goal this time around is to learn a new programming language. Before this hack-a-thon I had not written a single line of code in Go,” Gold said.
“The point is not to get development experience, the point is to get team experience. For me at least,” team member Connor Maddlozzo said. Some developers, like Maddlozzo, love to dabble in hack-a-thons all over the state and already had another hack-a-thon planned for the following week. “I come to these for developer in team experiences,” Maddlozzo said. “And you also get to meet great people.”
Dragging themselves into the final hours of Sunday the team started finalizing their application concepts. Every developer dug deep in a frantic atmosphere and found the energy to create the product they set out to accomplish. “You start out with small ideas that lead into bigger ideas which lead into better ideas, and hopefully by the end of it you have something looking nice and not a sleep deprived ridden mess,” Tusek said.
“The Final Countdown” by Europe filled the office space to add pressure to the closing moments of the weekend. Representatives of Lane County government and Symantec judged Xakclub and their competitors.
A tired crowd of programmers gathered in the main office room for the award ceremony. Winners of the respected challenges would win a $599.99 cash prize, and even though Xakclub may not have won, their work will be saved and used if needed.