One week later - The final hackdown

It’s all wrapped up, I’ve had some sleep and more time to really think through what it meant to be part of the Hacking the Future of Work hackathon this weekend.

Here are some final thoughts in no particular order:

Work, work, work

The first thing that stands out to me is the sheer amount of work an event like this takes. There’s the planning, the fundraising, the coming together and hashing out ideas for projects (which alone took over 4 hours!), organizing food, travel reimbursement, figuring out how 60+ people can operate in one large open concept space, and so on and that doesn’t even count the work that the participants put in over the 72 hour period.

Ideation: Choose your own adventure

Coming into this event I knew it was going to be a lot of hours and that things were intense as teams pulled ideas together, but I don’t think I realized just how much time is involved to really flesh out ideas in practical terms. The people who pitched the ideas that were voted on to be presented at the weekend hackathon were coming at it from one perspective, but once you get an entire team behind an idea you start to see the various ways it can be interpreted and how many opportunities there are to choose your own adventure in terms of where the project ends up. I think every group had at least one experience of realizing the path they were going down may not have been the best one, and having to backtrack a bit or change things around to make it more logical for their project. As a student of democracy and ensuring all voices are included, I found the cacophony to be really inspiring. There is beauty in chaos, and hackathons are a great example of that.

The host

I also learned that there is huge importance behind finding the right space for a project as time-intense as this. Teams had places to go for sleep, but other than that spent their entire weekend within the same 4 (large!) walls. I felt that the Impact Hub was an excellent venue. It was comfortable and spacious, every team had an area of their own. It was well lit and still felt cozy. There was lots of space for teams to map out their ideas. The staff on hand were all friendly and helpful. I found out Sunday that it was their first time hosting an event like this and I hope it was a positive experience for them because it worked really well.

Diversity our strength

Two things that I mentioned on Friday but wanted to reiterate: The diversity in the room was inspiring, in terms of age, gender, level of awareness of program development, available data and prediction of employment trends, skillsets, everything. I can see a key factor in success being the ability to bring a large array of voices into the room.

Fuel

Another less important point but a point still the same: I was really happy to see the variety of healthy food available for people. I have learned that bottomless coffee and snacks are definitely a hackathon necessity!

Feedback is priceless

I know different hackathons have different purposes, and some hackathons have judges who award prizes to the top/top 3 teams. I like that with this hackathon it was less about judging and more about a panel that was a cross-section of people who gave feedback and the ultimate goal was to create projects for the greater good. What participants got out of it was the chance to work for positive change, and the opportunity to network with leaders in their respective fields of interest. That’s pretty neat if you ask me.

I was surprised initially that there wasn’t an end-user or two on the panel but realized quickly that with the wide range of products it may have been hard to pinpoint exactly what type of end user would benefit from each project. That and when the hackathon is being organized no one could predict the types of applications and services that would be presented so I can’t imagine trying to find end-users for an unknown product!

Data enthusiasts

Being interested in data, it was also neat for me to see what level of engagement each group had with what was available. There were some sets that were used by almost every team, and if a group didn’t have the data available that they felt they needed, they’d do a search or scrape of the data available online. These participants really know their stuff.

Commitment

On the way home I was on the same bus as one of the hackers. We chatted briefly before he got off the bus. He was telling me how he is in undergrad at university, and had two midterms and a project due this week, after the ½ hour bus ride home. This is another important lesson – these folks are leaving their hometowns, families, school work and other work behind for 72 hours to focus solely on solutions. Like I said on Sunday – everyday heroes.

Hacking is for you, too!

I’ll end with a final thank you to everyone who came together to make this event the success that it was. I can say that I am definitely inspired and looking forward to seeing what the next steps are that come out of all of the work done this weekend. Being part of this hackathon gave me a lot of hope about the state of the world. I can suggest is that if you’re feeling the need for an inspirational boost, check out the next local hackathon in your community. You just may find the energy and positivity you’ve been missing!

Chelsea Robinson-Sharman, #HackFoW volunteer, signing off

Day 3 - Hacktastic demos

Nervous buzz

I arrived to a very different feeling in the space this Sunday morning - demo day. It is much quieter than it has been earlier in the weekend. Teams are in their final hours of getting their projects together for presentation. They have been told the order they are presenting in (last up Friday evening is first up Sunday afternoon and so on), and are now finalizing their slideshows, their presentation speaking notes, setting up Twitter accounts and practicing their pitches. There is nervous excitement in the air for sure.

Organizers get %^&$ done

The organizing team has been incredible. Everyone, from the Hub staff, to hackathon coordinators Matt and Lisa, to all of the volunteers who have also dedicated their weekends to being here, are as friendly and cheerful as hour 1 Friday night. To me this speaks volumes about how passionate they are about finding solutions to the potential problems brought forth as a result of automation and the changing job market.

Home sweet home

The Hub is also starting to feel a bit like home (but more clean than my apartment!). I really appreciate how innovative and welcoming this space is - from providing organic bins and recycling, to plants and greenery strategically spaced out, to a thoughtful and well-designed sign to remind people to think about the trees as they print - it's a venue that feels welcoming, cozy and inspirational all at once. 

Demo prep

Watching teams come together to rehearse their end pitches is intense. You can feel the nerves, and at the same time at this point the teams know their products inside and out – the successes, the pain points, and the next steps are all carefully laid out by each team.

The space got its buzz back as teams wrapped up fixing last minute bugs on their final products and began to assemblein advance of presentations. I started getting butterflies in my stomach and I wasn't even presenting! The amount of work each team put into their product is incredible, and it is really exciting to be able to witness not only the hours of hard work but the products that come out of it at the end. 

Show and tell

The presentations were in a word inspirational. I had witnessed how much work had gone in to each one - how many hours each team spent analyzing and re-thinking their potential solution, thinking about and talking to potential users of each of their products, going back to the drawing board on certain areas of their idea if they didn’t feel it was working, and coding the end product. So. Much. Coding. Again, some teams barely slept. But at the end it seemed like it was all worth it – teams projects were well thought out, creative, and ultimately really exciting to see in action. Having never seen this kind of presentation before I was in total awe that I was standing in a room with such brilliant and creative minds, who were using their power to help create social change. These folks are seriously every day heroes, and I am so happy I got to witness this piece of creative history.

I won’t do the presentations justice if I try to summarize them here. All I’ll say is check https://twitter.com/datafestOTT for some of the live updates from the event itself and keep your eye on futureofwork.ca for more information about the presented projects. There were so many great ideas.

The panel of judges were great too. I think the organizers did a really good job of having a panel that represented a wide array of voices – from folks who understand the data, to developers, to people who work with people who could end up being end users of the project – each one brought a different perspective to the feedback given to the teams.

Next steps

I really liked that the outcome was more about next steps for each project than awarding some big cash prize. Don’t get me wrong, that kind of incentive is great. But for these teams to now have the opportunity to really do some good with their ideas is inspiring. One of the judges, Igor from Amazon.ca, was speaking to a group outside after the event about potential products they may be able to offer to provide their project a boost. This is what it’s all about – bringing the right people together to network and work for positive change. I may be a bit exhausted myself but the only word I can think of to describe it is beautiful.

Zzzzz

I’m heading home for some sleep now but will follow up with one last post summarizing my feelings about the hackathon experience in general. And there will be pictures, lots of pictures!!

For now, let me say thank you to every last person involved in this process. You are truly amazing and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Chelsea Robinson-Sharman, #HackFoW Volunteer

Day 2 - The user is always right

End-user afternoon 

This afternoon three VIPs came by. And by VIP I mean they had a different take on the hackathon event than any of the participants thus far.

Called end-users, these three individuals were, like me, completely new to the hackathon scene. Why their insight is invaluable however is that these three participants represent people who would take the tools that are being built by the teams and use them to try to find a new job or career path. 

Veronica, user volunteer extraordinaire

I sat down with one of the VIPs end-users, Veronica, and asked her a bit about her experience at the event. 

Veronica is currently thinking about making a career change and what's to be able to answer the question "is this the right time?". She has years of work experience in workforce development so concept of hackathon resonated with her, which is how she got involved. 

She arrived at the event excited to hear about ideas and solutions. She had spent most of her afternoon up until this point with a team that was looking at building a tool to guide the user through career planning via an app.

In terms of figuring out if it's the right time for her to make a change, she really wanted to figure out how to articulate the skill set she has built up over the years into something different than what she does already. Veronica is hoping to find a way to assess the transferability of those skills to another career. Once she has an idea of what other paths are available to her, she wants to get an idea of what activities she can undertake to upgrade her skill set and what roles she could look at without starting at square one.

Veronica's thoughts on the hack

This is Veronica's first hackathon experience, and she is really enjoying seeing it all in action. 

Veronica is most fascinated by the willingness of these groups to come together and solve a problem from a different perspective. She is impressed by the creativity - that teams have a mash of skills, and are building programs that take a different lens to search for new solutions.

Thank you Veronica for taking the time to speak to me about your experience! 

Chelsea Robinson-Sharman, #HackFoW Volunteer

Day 2 - Holy hackamole!

And we're back! 

It probably goes without saying, the energy today has kept its enthusiasm and at the same time is a bit more subdued given the midnight end (at the space at least!) last night and the 9am start today. 

The projects

Groups have split into 10 teams, one mega team became two smaller teams that are going to work on two different concepts. 

It's been fascinating to listen to the evolution of project ideas. Some groups have chosen to work with a project in its original form. Other projects have morphed and/or blended with other ideas.

For example, Rich's idea for a profile of non-traditional (i.e. people with disabilities or coming back to the work force after an extended period) candidates for employment has merged with Pat's idea of a union for the unemployed, to create an online gathering space for those disadvantaged by the current system of employment. 

Another group is working on what they're calling "Career Tinder" - an app that by swiping left or right on a series of questions allows the user to see a variety of career possibilities that match their skills and interests.

The group working on Jasmine's idea about where to find the right training for a particular job or career have stuck to the original concept and are putting in the time to make sure their end product is something both unique and useful.

It's also really interesting to see how the groups have formed. I'm realizing that it's important to, as much as possible, ensure that there are an assortment of skills represented in each group. People may have come with friends whose skills are similar but they've broken out into different groups to maximize productivity.

Co-creation

The Hub is filled with the hum of collaboration. Folks with a variety of skills are going back and forth between groups to share their knowledge and provide valuable input and support. Facilitators who have an idea of who has which skills are helping to bridge gaps in groups too. The buzz of the room rises and falls as teams go back and forth from hashing out ideas to focussing on product development. 

Data for good (open by default in action)

As someone relatively new to the world of open data, it's been educational for me to see how a wide range of datasets are being used in this process. There are large amount of datasets available, either only for this event or that are part of a larger open data project. Those who are familiar with the sets are helping others navigate to the ones that are most helpful to each idea being developed. Most of my knowledge so far is about releasing data so it's illuminating to see the other side where the data is being put to use. 

The energy is picking up as folks are getting more into their projects and ideas are becoming more solidified. My guess is this will continue to be the case as the day progresses - only time will tell! 

Chelsea Robinson-Sharman, #HackFoW Volunteer

Day 1 - What the hack?

Introducing...

My name is Chelsea and #HackFoW is my first hackathon. I'm new to the world of data, hacking and coding and So first I want to give Datafest Ottawa a big thank you for letting me join in on this weekend adventure to get to know more about just what is involved in a hackathon.

What's a hackathon?

For those of you who are new to this, like me: hackathon is a port-manteau (my favourite term!) - a mash of the words hack (the good kind: work on solving a problem in a tech way) and marathon (because of the length of the event - usually time-boxed, so a set start and end which is usually but not always Friday evening to Sunday afternoon and all of the time in between). 

Day 1 Blast-off

Some things that I was expecting from the first night that delivered in droves: high energy and excitement, lots of conversation, and enthusiasm for the cause (in this case looking at future employment trends in Canada). Hackers traveled in from hundreds of kilometres away to attend this event and they were excited to meet new people and learn more about the projects. The energy in the room was infectious. I was also happy to see such a range of voices and ideas - from the pitches to the subject experts to the data enthusiasts themselves, the space felt inclusive and diverse. 

Some things I didn't expect: everyone is so friendly! I'm a natural introvert and am always hesitant about any event that involves 'networking' in any form. Here I felt included and welcomed from the start. Everyone I talked to was excited and passionate, not only about hacking but about innovative ways to look at the future of work in Canada. 

I was also impressed by the food. That may be a weird thing to focus on, but I've heard that hackathons are all about pizza and red bull but was happy to see fruit and vegetables and a variety of plates of food that were delicious. And yes, there was definitely coffee! 

The pitches were a definite highlight. Having the 15 groups who proposed the chosen weekend projects here to pitch them in person was a really great way to start. The passion people felt about their projects was palpable. Again, the enthusiasm! 

Once pitches were done, hackers had the chance to shop around a bit. The projects and their creators were all in different areas around the space and the data enthusiasts could move freely around to ask more questions and hear more details about what the project creator envisioned for the solution. 

Once everyone had a chance to visit the potential projects, teams began to assemble and got down to work. In all, 9 projects were chosen and teams worked late into the night (some were bouncing ideas back and forth on Slack until 4am!). 

What's next?

Now it's the morning of day 2 and teams are slowly reassembling here in the space. Looking forward to hearing more about where teams are at and why the groups chose the projects they did. 

Chelsea Robinson-Sharman, #HackFoW Volunteer