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Code For Oakland: The Most Diverse Hackathon Ever

Hackathons have always been creative. They remind me of spontaneous music jams – only instead of drummers and saxophonists, we gather as product managers, UI designers and coders.

By Romy Ilano (Founder, Snowyla)

Sometimes people ask me why I go to so many hackathons… “Isn’t it a lot of work?” I just laugh, because I feel like this is such fun to me. Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend meeting smart, passionate people pushing forward to make stuff for the world to use? This is fun!

Nowadays hackathons have diversified, and there are Government 2.0 hackathons. Yes, government!

Code for Oakland celebrated its second year this July, and it was one of a new breed of Government 2.0 hackathons turning the government-citizen paradigm on its head. Citizens would figure out how to solve problems using newly-released open data sets bulging with information ranging from health clinic locations to crime statistics to school district boundary information.

It’s a fresh approach, a very bottoms-up relationship of civic engagement. People my age tend to think of the government as bureaucratic, removed and far away… and you know, that can be the reality. Government 2.0 hackathons are the first step in showing us that we could do something that mattered, and that we were as much a part of the process as the city itself.


Pitching a social work idea early in the morning

Code for Oakland was one of the most diverse hackathons I’ve attended.

It was refreshing to see so many women attending that, unlike most hackathons, being a woman was entirely unremarkable.

This time, it wasn’t only idealistic young software engineering men out to save the world on their own – they were joined by idealistic senior citizens, social workers, teachers, college students, government workers, Code for America fellows, musicians, homemakers and activists.

People everywhere were so passionate! Despite our differences, it was neat to see how we could all work together.


Every student should have an engineer teaching them one on one like this…

Engineers Love Creative Ideas

I don’t think that non-tech people realize how exciting it is to get their input and ideas at hackathons. Most engineers I know love nothing more than to build elegant, beautiful solutions that people will actually use. Engineers are artists, and they like being able to solve novel problems.

Sometimes developers are caught up working in very long-term business projects, so the ability to turn out a useful project in a day, with very little hassle can remind them of why they love programming. It helps put the shine back in their career, and I suspect, probably helps prevent burn-out.

I joined a team of Oakland Technical High School students and their teachers, and although the kids were shy, each had a patient engineer working alongside them. The high school administrator outlined the problems many kids faced, which was falling behind on classwork. Sometimes one or two kids in a large classroom could disrupt the class for everyone else, send the teacher into a bad mood and then leave the rest of the kids unable to get through their homework. The kids needed a web helper to get caught up on missed work.


Coding for Oakland…

Keeping Expectations High

Even though the high school students were still learning HTML and CSS and had a great teachers, the developers on our team treated them like adults and kept expectations high. I was surprised how well the students took to Git and GitHub even though they had just learned to use the command line.

“This stuff isn’t hard,” our developer James Halliday kept saying. “You can do it.” Together the kids quickly learned how to work through version control and put together a web app as a team. Very impressive!

Some photo moments:


Preparing a pitch

I love seeing new kinds of people showing up at hackathons. The kids on my team practiced pitching and admitted that they were a little shy. Who wouldn’t be, especially since they were the youngest people there? I wish they (and other people) would realize that everyone has to start out somewhere, and we’re all afraid in the beginning.


OakTest pitching… and winning the Youth Prize!

When they heard that they won the youth prize, they couldn’t believe it. We were all so proud! The other projects were equally interesting, covering anything from an online map of all fruit trees in the area to online visual charts of the Oakland city budget to restaurant safety ratings to “pimping” local bus stops.

I don’t think we would have had the range of quirky ideas if the hackathon were made up of the typical crowd – college kids or young programming guys. I can’t wait to see how interesting hackathons like this are in the future!

Post Hackathon Passion

One of the toughest tasks is to maintain projects after a hackathon is over. Out of all the hackathons I’ve been to, Code for Oakland had the strongest post-event showing I’ve seen yet.


Half the crowd at this OakX Community event were Code for Oakland hackathon participants.

People continued to meet at local hacker space Tech Liminal the following Wednesday, so much so that they overflowed two stories.


Techliminal’s Open Hack Night jammed two stories of Code for Oakland hackathon participants to continue working on projects

Thanks for putting on a great Code for Oakland hackathon! We’re all looking forward to next year.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Romy Ilano is Founder at Snowyla, a mobile shopping startup. She has 7 years of international product and marketing experience in mobile content for consumers (games, music, messaging, payments). Romy loves building things with people and for companies and is always looking for new “partners in crime’ to change the world. Follow her on Twitter at @RomyIlano.