XO Group Hosts Hack Upon A Cause: Provides ProgrammableWeb Feedback

Mark Boyd, February 10th, 2014

Media publishers XO Group hosted Hack Upon a Cause in New York last weekend. ProgrammableWeb spoke with the organizers about how to manage a hackathon aimed at solving real world problems, and checked in with the FullStack Academy winners who learned to code at a bootcamp just four weeks prior to the event.

XO Group – a global media company that publishes content focused on weddings, pregnancy and home ownership – partnered with AngelHack to host Hack Upon A Cause, last weekend (8 & 9 February). The hackathon challenged competitors to create sustainable tech solutions that ‘improve the lives of women and teens around the world’.

Managing a Hackathon for Social Good

“We’re going through an awesome transformation at XO Group, building up socially-enabled new products and going through a similar transformation with our engineering department and moving to a more agile environment,” Organizer Drew Koloski, Director of Talent Acquisition at XO Group told ProgrammableWeb. “So we wanted to get involved with the New York developer community and share what we are learning and find a common cause in women’s needs. At XO Group, we help women with some of the most challenging life events: organizing a wedding, having a baby, and setting up home. So we really wanted to try and get talented developers to help women solve other problems they may face in their lives.”

XO Group partnered with four non-profit organizations who were each given time to present their challenges to competitors at the start of the hackathon. While just under 350 competitors registered, a solid 150 designers and developers actually participated on the weekend.

“It was a really unique approach, usually hackathons are geared to letting developers come in and do their thing but at this event we have asked developers to work specifically on the problems our not-for-profit (NFP) partners are facing: making apps purposeful and realistic in terms of the NFPs who will be using them,” said Koloski.

Hackathon competition challenges were also posted in advance on the event’s Eventbrite page and included:

  • Apps that help the Seattle-based not-for-profit New Course demonstrate the link between the environment, women’s inequity and poverty
  • Apps that can be used to prevent dating abuse and risk of domestic violence for Day One
  • A secure, mobile solutions to connect young women in under-resourced communities who are part of a national mentoring network run by the Step Up Women’s Network
  • Complete a website project for Wish Upon a Wedding, a not-for-profit that provides free weddings to couples where one partner is terminally ill.

Prizes included a $5,000 and acceptance into the 2014 HACKcelerator program for the grand prize, while 2nd and 3rd place received $3,000 and $1,500 respectively. Sponsor Firebase also offered subscription plans for the best hack built with the Firebase API, a database-as-a-service offering that helps apps store and sync their data.

A Bootcamp Success Story

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The winning team, mentorchat, consisted of three developers who all started learning to code at a FullStack Academy bootcamp just four weeks ago (their course continues until April 4). While across the country in California at present, bootcamps have come under the microscope as that State’s education system seeks ways to accredit and regulate developer bootcamp programs. The move has raised hackles as much as eyebrows, with VentureBeat’s Christina Farr delving into the implications for bootcamp providers who may face as much as $50,000 in fines for regulatory non-compliance, while guest poster David Selinger argued that since bootcamps don’t claim accreditation, they shouldn’t be subject to regulation.

Even though they are across the country and outside of the State jurisdiction, New York developer bootcamps have been drawn into the debate, with a flurry of former students praising the services of providers including the FlatIron School, FullStack Academy and Thinkful.

Now FullStack has another real-world testimonial to proffer: their students’ success. All three team members of mentorchat completed their FullStack Academy bootcamp course four weeks ago. Eric Cook was a teacher before coding, with a computer science minor. Howard Kim was also new to coding, while Waine Tam probably had the most experience, according to the team. He had graduated college in 2001 and went on to work in finance for nine years before joining a non-profit two years ago. He has spent the last year self-studying coding via MOOC courses but FullStack Academy was his first class-based learning.

The team also credits Tam’s background in working with a not-for-profit as a huge advantage for the team. “The program knowledge really helped with both the pitch and development of the app,” they said.

Using APIs to Create a ‘Lean and Robust App’

The mentorchat team used Facebook APIs, the open-source Passport authentication, and a node module for SMTP to power their app. Organizer James Cox from XO Group called the solution a “lean app that turns out a robust solution using a platform ready for the mobile environment.” It was an approach the Step Up Women’s Network can immediately start thinking of deploying.

The team created the solution to match Step Up’s national mentoring network by facilitating a many-to-many chat approach: “Our application allows any mentee to match up with any mentor who is online at anytime, it is polyschronous. Using Facebook APIs gave us an advantage as it is a ubiquitous platform and we didn’t need to think about how to make it mobile.”

The team hopes to use their HACKcelerator program participation to learn how to scale the solution for use by other not-for-profits.

All images of the event and winning team courtesy of Carly Zipp.

By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self and e-commerce. He can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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