Women Who Code Atlanta Hackathon 2017
While leaving the ATDC building at Georgia Tech around 10 p.m. on Saturday night, I told one of my teammates for the Women Who Code Atlanta Hackathon that we needed a weekend within this weekend. We had been at the ATDC working on creating a mobile app since 8:30 a.m. that morning and had also been there until 10 p.m. the night before making pitches, choosing teams, and brainstorming ideas and implementation.
Although I had been looking forward to the hackathon since I first signed up a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t been planning on pitching an idea until I was sitting in the main event room with the fifty or so other women participating in the hackathon on Friday night. As I listened to some of the other participants present their app ideas, I felt a growing urge to throw out an idea for an app that would offer users more information about what they could do to help mitigate climate change. I didn’t know if building a user-centric carbon emission tracking app was even possible in the two day time frame, but, inspired by the other hackathon pitches as well as Mint.com’s budget setting and tracking tools, I thought I would at least suggest it.
Before the pitches even started, the hackathon organizers had announced that they wanted the teams to consist of six to eight people with a minimum of five. So when all the participants began walking around the room, placing stickers on large sheets of paper describing the pitch ideas as a means of voting on them, and the sheet containing my idea received less stickers than several others, I was pretty certain and also pretty relieved that my idea wasn’t going to be chosen. Instead of narrowing down the number of ideas based on the number of participants and overall interest, which I heard was the original plan, there seemed to be some kind of miscommunication among the organizers though, leading the announcer to then tell the participants to go stand next to the sheet of paper for the pitch idea that they wanted to work on most.
To my surprise, a few participants hesitantly came over to me, asking me what I thought working on the app would involve and trying to ascertain if we all collectively had the different skill sets that would be needed to create it. Three of the four other women said they were full-stack developers with intermediate back-end experience while I and the other woman there agreed that we were more of designers. Instead of wandering over to one of the other groups, as I thought they would do, they all continued hovering next to the sheet of paper I had written my idea on. There were five of us in total so it was decided: we were going to try to build the app.
Over the next few hours, we continued talking about the app idea and tried reducing it down to its simplest form by making a list of “A,” “B,” and “C” features and also mapping user flow. We found an API developed by a team at UC Berkeley that seemed to offer all the carbon emission data that we would need and so we went home Friday night feeling confident about the app and what we thought we could accomplish over the next day and a half.
Working on the app was more challenging the next morning with progress coming in fits and starts. We needed a key to access the API we had found the night before and couldn’t find a comparable one to use instead. Women Who Code Atlanta had planned a truly amazing hackathon though and so there were several mentors with senior-level design and/or development experience that we could ask for help. An incredibly nice and talented back-end programmer named Sandy came downstairs to help us figure out what to do about the API. Sandy wanted to help us find a similar API to the one we had originally planned on using from UC Berkeley, but pointed out that the output we were hoping to get—a number that was in joules in some cases and in watts in others—wasn’t going to be easily synthesized. We told her that we were hoping to find a standard number of mtCO2e per year in tons, but, in describing this to her, we realized that that number probably wouldn’t make sense to our app’s users let alone us. It felt exasperating to come in that morning and not be able to accomplish what we had thought would be fairly straightforward the night before, but talking to Sandy made us realize that we could simplify the process used to make our app’s prototype as well as the prototype itself if we pivoted towards offering our users a “carbon emission score” rather than an actual carbon emission estimate.
Our progress felt like it was interrupted again later that afternoon when Alicia Carr, one of the directors of Women Who Code Atlanta came to our team room to check on us.
“This is great and all, but how is your app going to make money?” she asked. At that moment, I felt like some kind of frustrated idealist stock character: We just want to help the planet. Do we really need to turn a profit? In talking to her and my teammates about advertisements and data, I started to remember some of the things I had learned about digital marketing and data segmentation while attending the SuperNova South conference in Atlanta last week though.
“We’re collecting a lot of user data,” one of our team members who had taken on a lot of the back-end development and who was also named Alicia, pointed out.
“If a large percentage of users indicate that they aren’t currently powering their homes with solar panels from one question, but that they have a mostly plant-based diet from another question, then companies that sell solar panels can buy our data insights and figure out they should be advertising on vegetarian blogs and in vegetarian magazines,” I tried.
“That’s it!” Alicia (the director) told us. “That’s what you need to tell the judges tomorrow.”
Watching the other hackathon teams present was awesome! I especially liked the Not Today team’s mental health app as well as the Menuize team’s grocery and meal planning website. At some point during their demo, one of the Menuize team members showed the audience a calendar they had developed that allows users to drag and drop specific meals from their saved recipes onto certain days of the week, so that users can plan meals and ration food more accurately (the third most effective solution to reducing carbon emissions according to environmental researcher and author Paul Hawken).
It was an honor when Erica Stanley, one of the other Women Who Code Atlanta directors, announced about an hour later that the judges had decided to create a special Social Impact Award in addition to First and Second Place and that our app, which we named “Inhabit,” had won. I didn’t realize until the hackathon had already started that there were going to be judges and awards so it was really an amazing experience pitching an idea on Friday night, building an app with a team of smart and hardworking ladies Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday morning, and winning an award for the app Sunday afternoon.
I am so thankful for Alicia Barrett, Katie Brennan, Debby McRae, and Naz Sodanbek for being such a great team, the hackathon mentors for helping make our ideas and app better each time they stopped by our room, and the Women Who Code Atlanta organizers for hosting this amazing event—with amazing food! I will definitely be back at more Women Who Code events in the future!