Girls In Tech: Hackathon

As Girls in Tech approaches their one year anniversary since the launch of the Gibraltar chapter, real-world dividends are manifesting in the community as a result of their social initiatives. Last November saw their first “Hacking for Humanity” hackathon – a two day event where developers, designers and product managers banded together to collaborate on solving technical problems for various Gibraltar-based charities and non-profits.

Why a Hackathon and Who Can Participate? 

To put it simply, a hackathon is an event where people come together into one space (physical or digital) and work with technology to turn ideas into reality within a short time constraint. You don’t need to be a programmer, or even a technical person – the more diverse the people, the greater the range of ideas that can emerge.

The Girls in Tech hackathon itself is an open event for both male and female participants to promote gender equality and bridge the gap in the technology spaces. For instance, the last event in November saw twenty-eight participants get the chance to flex their skills, work with fellow hackers, and learn something new – all whilst providing an opportunity to contribute to social causes.

Hackathon Heroes

The time-sensitive yet open nature of hackathons can lead to results that can’t be replicated in regular working environments. For example, Facebook’s famous ‘Like’ button actually started out as an ‘Awesome’ button, produced in an internal company hackathon at Facebook. Facebook’s ‘Chat’ feature emerged in a similar way. Now these are both core features of the Facebook experience.

Another example of a hackathon success was when Skype spent $85m on a popular social messaging app called GroupMe, which started out as a simple idea which was given life through a community hackathon run by TechCrunch, a leading technology news community.

Evidently, unlike most regular day jobs, hackathons provide an environment where risk taking is encouraged and failure isn’t frowned upon, giving people the chance to think out of the box and produce awesome things. It’s a great reason to run one in your own company. Furthermore, similar results were seen at Girls in Tech’s Hacking for Humanity – one team produced such a great prototype that Childline decided to develop it into a real solution.

Fresh Perspectives on Business Challenges

Girls in Tech worked alongside three social initiatives to bring fresh perspectives to challenges each organisation was facing. The initiatives at ‘Hacking for Humanity’ included:

  1. Childline
  2. Animals in Need Foundation
  3. Understanding Gibraltar

Engaging members of the community who are external to each organisation brings an outside perspective to each initiative, and with that, the freedom to explore openly. Any limits imposed by organisational structures and politics are non-existent.

For guidance though, representatives from each organisation were on at hand if teams needed advice or opinions from subject matter experts. For instance Merel Swarts and Jo Abergel of Childline assisted the teams working on their topic by answering questions and providing background information about the Childline organisation. With such guidance, and the tireless effort of the teams involved, an array of amazing ideas emerged.

Clockwise: Childline, judges, prize winners.

Solutions at the event included:

  • An anonymous help platform that would support Childline Gibraltar (winning first prize)
  • A live call to text application for Childline
  • A web app for Animals in Need Foundation that would encourage people to walk stray dogs in their free time through the use of gamification.

The work developed in this event was appraised by an experienced panel of judges and prizes were given to the top three placing teams. The judging panel was made up of Prof. Daniella Tilbury (Vice Chancellor and CEO – University of Gibraltar), Denise Matthews (CEO One Media & Events, Chapter Director Startup Grind Gibraltar), Gal Shapira (CIO Playtech), Paul Astengo (Senior Executive – Gibraltar Finance, HM Government of Gibraltar) and Girls in Tech Gibraltar’s Managing Director, Cristina Turbatu.

Out of all the hacks, only some go forward to become real solutions. Next is the story of one team at Hacking for Humanity, whose project was chosen by Childline to be used in real life.

The Hackathon Journey: Idea to Reality

If you’re wondering what it’s like participating in such an event, here’s some learnings from members of the team that had their project chosen to be developed as a real solution. Their experience covers everything from arriving at a hackathon, forming teams, to preparing their solution beyond the hackathon.

From left to right: Mark Mitrushkin, Márcio José Chaves Oliveira, Miguel Berniz, and Rita Fernandes
Choosing a project

At the start of the hackathon, problem statements are set by each of the initiatives involved. The Childline project was put forward to the hackers by Childline’s Chairperson, Jo Abergel and Merel Swarts, Childline’s Services Coordinator. Childline had an issue with maintaining call records and required a bespoke system to easily confidentially communicate with, and measure the risk of young people.

Hackers were attracted to the project as it aligned with their passions, and the goals were clear. Here’s what they thought when starting out:

I thought that if I could help someone with my passion that would be a plus. It’s also a good way to get involved with the community, both on social and professional levels.” – Rita Fernandes 

“From the list of suggested topics, the Childline project had a clear problem and requirements from which we could see the solution.” – Mark Mitrushkin

Having the opportunity to help children to be better served by childline was the spirit behind the election of the project in the Hackathon” – Miguel Berniz

Working together effectively

After choosing the project, the team had to figure out how to work together most effectively, as they had all just met. They found that their shared goals helped them, as well as finding ways to draw upon each individual’s area of expertise:

“It was definitely a challenge to start working with people you first met. Each of us wanted to contribute with the skills we have and it was a matter of putting the skills together.” – Mark Mitrushkin

Working with a team of people you just met for the very first time was a truly enriching experience.” – Miguel Berniz

Making the right thing

Making something cool is fun, but making something truly useful is most important. Here, the team show how leveraging expert knowledge helped focus their ideas, leading to a product that solved a genuine problem:

“Gladly we had Jo and Merel from Childline to answer all our questions.” – Mark Mitrushkin

They were genuinely interested in having a better platform, so they were really helpful providing us all the requirements and explaining the issues and constraints that they were facing. We could have just designed something pretty but we decided to look into the real issues Childline was facing and deliver them an improved solution.” – Rita Fernandes

Planning for future success

The project is now being led by Annemarie Heeringa from Childline. After the hackathon, Swarts and Abergel met with the hackers to ensure the system met their needs before going live with the idea.

According to Abergel, the hackers brought ideas that Childline hadn’t even considered, and the project is looking very promising going forward. She described that the solution will make information much more easily accessible to Childline staff and volunteers, as well as improving relationships with other agencies whom which they work with.

Get Involved with Girls in Tech

Evident from all parties involved at the event, there is no doubt that using our skills for something important to us is both rewarding and fulfilling – something many people care about more than money. In fact, such positive environments often bring innovative solutions that could otherwise have been locked up forever.

On another level, Hackathons also connect people – they’re great for recruitment and promoting your brand too. Childline stated that Girls in Tech gave them the opportunity to raise awareness about the work of their charity to groups of hackers who were not aware of everything they did.

Many of them approached us afterwards about some of the volunteering opportunities we can offer.” – Jo Abergel

Girls in Tech have a number of events coming up supported by their platinum sponsor, Gaming Innovation Group, their silver sponsor, Playtech and event partner Colorworks. Girls in Tech also have the support of Supernatural and the World Trade Center who hosted the Hackathon. Help from these sponsors enables Girls in Tech to put on incredible and exciting events, whilst importantly encouraging women to pursue technical careers.

Up next is their ‘Women in Tech Stories’ event, Thursday, 5 April at 18:30. Contact karen.mares@girlsintech.org for more information on getting involved.

BY GRAEME FULTON