AIGA Houston board members Michelle Coffey and Evan O’Neil write about their experience at the recent Houston Hackathon, an annual civic-focused, 24-hour collaborative project.
The #JohnsBeware team at nearly 2 a.m.
Michelle: Ever heard of a Hackathon? Thought it was just a Silicon Valley-type thing for tech entrepreneurs all trying to out-buzzword each other? I kind of did, too. But the Houston Hackathon is a civic-focused effort. So the projects are focused on using technology to make our city a better place to live and work. And I’m into that sort of thing (A 2nd Cup). And I knew Evan was too (Houston Needs a Swimming Hole). So we decided to take the plunge out of our design-centric safety zone.
Evan: Michelle and I recently joined the AIGA Houston board as co-directors of Design Advocacy, with the goal of connecting design with other professions in the city. A lot of the idea is to show the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and what design can add to the process. What could be a better proving ground than the Houston Hackathon, now in its 4th year, where people from all fields and backgrounds come together to work on projects to make Houston a better place to live?
M: We arrived Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at the Houston Technology Center. I’m drinking my pourover coffee from Xela Coffee Roasters (these tech guys clearly know the way to my heart), and I browse all the current project ideas. I decided I would work on the human trafficking or food deserts project, depending on which team “made.”
Then I hear a guy behind me introduce himself to the guy next to him, and he says he wants to work on the trafficking project. Great! Team made. I turn around and introduce myself and say I overheard some ladies in the next section also mentioning that project. In the span of five minutes, we have a team of two content experts from the HPD VICE department, five developers, and three designers.
E: I was definitely worried my introversion would prove to be too much and keep me from getting connected to a project, but everyone was so welcoming and interested in hearing about other participants’ interests that I immediately forgot about how afraid of social settings I usually am. After I sat down around a whiteboard with Michelle and the growing team fighting human trafficking, it became pretty clear this was the project I wanted to spend my weekend working on.
Teams are formed.
M: A quick brainstorming session netted three doable solutions in our 24-hour time period. We thought our team was big enough and passionate enough that we could tackle all three. We’re buzzed on caffeine and ambition. My favorite part is our Fake Ad Bot that will post to Backpages.com and spam the “Johns” (sex buyers) by seeing a message from us instead of contact information for a girl.
E: I love the diversion element to the project, too. I’ve been developing a big interest in data visualization and mapping (this has been going since the Feltron talk), so the component of the project where we will map out the locations of these Backpages ads is looking to be a great experience to learn some new skills from unbelievably proficient people.
M: It’s noon. Official kickoff time. Housekeeping, thank-yous, and a quick keynote talk from Kenton Gray, past Hackathon winner for his Rollout! app giving some pointers on how to win at Hackathon. To our surprise, Design (capital D) as well as AIGA Houston got a HUGE shoutout as part of his talk. He basically said design is critical to the success of the app, so grab a designer as part of your team if there’s one available. YOU GUYS. We’ve never had bigger fans than the people in that room.
E: Introvert here, I can confirm that having a large, packed room all turn around and look at you is personally terrifying, though professionally very encouraging.
M: We commandeer a large conference room and get to work—developers on one end of the table, content experts in the middle, designers at the other end. We’re siloed enough to talk shop but connected enough to pose a quick question to the whole team. Google Drive team account. Github project site established. These people move FAST. We’ve got logos, hashtags, and Pythons flying. Design kids tap out Saturday night, developers dig in for the long haul so we can have fully-functioning prototypes of our tools.
E: I think the best part of the experience is that everyone trusted everyone else to do their job, and if anyone wanted to learn from someone else people were willing to share. The designers talked with the developers about typefaces, and why you should use professional paid ones instead of “free fonts,” and, likewise, the developers shared their tricks with Python notebooks, R and Shiny plots. As intimidating as the 24-hour element is to someone in their 30s, no one minded anyone taking off at a reasonable hour.
Neeraj has a teaching moment.
M: Sunday morning, 8:30 a.m. Designers back in; developers need a nap. They are rockstars. Designers work on some language refinement, seed some #JohnsBeware posts on social media channels, and set up our presentation website. Submit at noon. Time to practice the pitch. Our “client” Carla Manuel has three minutes to sell why our project matters.
E: This is one area where having designers on the team is a huge value—our part of the table has been thinking through how to communicate the project, and we have the parts of a pretty concise project. After a short burst of Bootstrap-induced panic, we’ve got a fully functional presentation website to link all the different elements of the project together.
M: 1 p.m. pitches begin. 15 submissions. All great ideas with compelling concepts and data sets behind them. And you know what? If they all had designers on their teams, every one of those projects could have been taken to the next level. In the end, our project “Johns Beware” is one of four that will get to present to the mayor this summer! So our work isn’t done, and I’m so glad it’s not.
I could not have asked for a better first hacking experience. Our team was amazing and the whole development community could not have been more brilliant, more kind, or more compassionate about solving the issues that plague Houstonians. Let’s do our part and be their teammates.
The victorious #JohnsBeware Hackathon team
Sketch City’s GitHub
Houston Hackathon submissions on Devpost
Johns Beware website
Data Visualization Meetup group