So 60 hackers walk into a bar...

17th December, 2015
by Eddie Chapman
CEO, Association for Children with a Disability

Well, we did in the end, but let’s talk about how we got their first as I ventured into my second experience at a Random Hacks of Kindness Hackathon. 

So you’ve seen the first installment. Great experience, great outcomes, great learnings.

But as a small cog in a big wheel, it’s hard to get things turning to make the most of that. It’s fair to say that we probably didn’t get to use the solution that was developed in the way we intended to.

But that experience stuck with me and before long I was talking about the hackathon concept in job interviews to wide-eyed interviewers, amazed at the opportunities it presented. Did that help me land a new job at ACD? If so, I owe them a lot…

So it was inevitable that when the next summer hack approached I was keen to get my new organisation involved – and it didn’t take long to realise that our Changing Places accessible toilet program was tailor made for a hack, and after a few meetings and a lot of back and forth we’d settled on our problem (improving the website to provide better feedback and potential locations) and found ourselves back at Swinburne in early December 2015, for another round.

You could safely say that all the same experiences from last time applied. The great venue, the unexpected revelations, the bizarre jargon... But amongst that we also learnt:

Pivot is not a dirty word

A couple of times over the weekend something odd happened (well, 'odder' perhaps) – While the teams were busy, heads down, a sudden cry would go out from across the room. Applause and cheering from a team, now gathered around a whiteboard, with a cry of ‘Pivot! Pivot!’. The developers amongst us crack a wry smile and continue working…

The team might have been working for hours. But slowly the realisation dawns on them that things aren’t right. So they talk, bring in others, map things out, and realise that they’ve been going in completely the wrong direction.

But what I loved about this was the celebration. It’d be easy to get despondent, to see the failure of time and effort. But instead the journey to the pivot is celebrated as part of the solution itself – without it, we wouldn’t know where we needed to be going. So despair is replaced by energy (albeit with that wry smile quietly stating “and now we’ve got more work to do in less time”!), nobody is blamed, and the team moves on with fresh motivation, knowing that they’re going to end up the better for it. It's just part of the process... 

 Nothing for us without us

I’d been at a disability forum just three days prior where this mantra was recited. Reminding everyone of the importance of ensuring that any program or policy or initiative focused on assisting people with disabilities needs to have people with disabilities involved in its development. It’s a bit disappointing that in this day and age, with that audience, that point continues to need to be made.

Fast forward to an audience full of ‘non-disability’ sector people, and within the first 15 minutes of the hack, without any prompting from us, this image happens: 

Mandi, our Business Analyst for the weekend, summed it up: This is the project user, the most important person in the team.

That continued over the first day as our two UX (user experience) gurus spent literally hours with her discussing how she used technology, how she went about her day, how she used Changing Places, and so on, for pages and pages.

It’s encouraging, but also a little disturbing, that a sector with no specific priority around disability seems to get this far more naturally than the not-for-profit sector does at times. That's one of the best things about RHoK though - the tech sector has so many lessons to teach people in the non-profit sector.

Pro-bono > fundraising

OK, we can’t pay our staff’s salaries with pro-bono. But as I stood back and looked over our space at Swinburne I did some rough calculations of hourly rates and estimated that in front of me, over this weekend, was about $50,000 worth of efforts. And that doesn’t even begin to include the value of the new connections that had been made, the information that had been shared, or the greater awareness the changemakers and hackers now had.

The RHOK hackathon presents an intense experience which benefits the projects, the organisations from which they come, and the individuals that attend, in broad and significant ways. New skills, new languages, new concepts,  new tools, and new connections. And a renewed enthusiasm in our own roles as we see others so excited by the work that we are doing.  

If instead we’d asked those present to reach into those pockets and donate something, we might have made $500. Maybe just enough to cover that bar tab...

Random Hacks of Kindness