Blueprint is a non-profit organization founded in late 2012 by students at University of California, Berkeley aiming to match the talents of university students to the needs of the community around them. Last weekend, they ran their first hackathon, Save the Day, Code for Good; Salesforce was a sponsor, and I was privileged to be able to attend, work with and judge the students solving real-world problems for local non-profits.
The hackathon was designed around building technology to impact the community, both locally and globally. At 5pm on Saturday, ten local non-profit organizations pitched ideas for addressing their issues:
After the presentations, the students organized into teams. About half of the teams already had a hack in mind; the remainder got to work discussing their ideas with the non-profit representatives. Throughout Saturday evening, the students’ apps took shape. A few participants were seasoned programmers (one team, ineligible for prizes, just competing for fun, comprised Berkeley alumni already working in commerce and industry), many were using the hackathon as an opportunity to add a new technology to their arsenal, and, surprisingly, one team was writing code for the very first time. It was great to wander around the room and see the range of technology in use; two or three mobile apps, a couple of completely client-side HTML5/CSS/JS hacks, Ruby, Python, Node.js and PHP web apps, many deployed on Heroku, and one very interesting project that used an Arduino to reimagine automobile console displays.
As the evening wore on, most students drifted away for some well earned sleep, but a few teams stuck it out through the night. A highlight of the event was the sushi – delivered just before the clocks skipped an hour at 2am!
On Sunday morning, the room again became a hive of activity as the participants raced to complete their projects before the 11am judging. Fourteen teams presented apps, which ranged from the whimsical (‘Inspired by Us‘, a web app displaying inspirational quotes) to the purposeful (‘Readability Score‘, a mobile app that captured text from the camera, fed it through OCR, and applied an algorithm to calculate the reading grade level of the text). Hacks were judged on four criteria: effective presentation, innovation, scalability and potential social impact, and prizes were awarded for overall first, second, third, as well as ‘best design’, ‘best beginner hack’ and ‘best non-profit organization hack’. You can see all of the entries and their placings at the Save the Day, Code for Good archive.
The winning app, ‘Bridge the Gap‘, focused on connecting students with non-profits, allowing them to ‘like’, donate and volunteer. The app looked great, with a solid implementation in Ruby on Heroku, but what tipped the scales was that the team displayed a real passion for positive change in their community.
At the close of the event, I reflected on the energy and commitment I saw at Berkeley. Dan Pink’s ‘Drive’ argues that motivation arises from mastery, autonomy and purpose; every hackathon gives developers the opportunity to hone their craft, freed of the constraints of work or school, but adding the element of purpose brought out the best in these student hackers.
If you’re studying at UC Berkeley, check out Blueprint; if you’re a student elsewhere, and would like to start a similar group, I’m sure the Blueprint team would be delighted to share their experience. Finally, if you’re interested in setting up a similar hackathon, Josh Bancroft at Intel has written a very useful guide: How To Conduct Your Own Code For Good Hackathon Event.