My First Nonprofit Hackathon

My First Nonprofit Hackathon


What does this word mean to you?

The first things that come to my mind is a room full of developers. With laptops buzzing in the background, energy drinks and pizza aplenty, and overnight camping sessions. This wasn’t really what I experienced. I have not been to a real hackathon yet, with actual prize pools, corporate sponsors, and judges in the mix.

All the same, my city hosted some interesting events that are similar, and I learned a lot from those experience(s).

One of these is called Momentum 2018. This is a recap of that event.

Day One

Momentum 2018. The event was hosted in Orlando’s dying mall inside the National Entreprenuership Center. Every year, developers and nonprofit organizations come together to build positive changes for the community. These nonprofits were in need of a tech solutions to scale upwards.

The event was 3 days long, spread over 3 weekends. Today I learned about interesting projects I could contribute to.

A total of 7 nonprofits attended to pitch tech problems they were facing. These were:

  1. Assisting the Blind in getting remote jobs
  2. Stopping Human and Sex Trafficking
  3. Optimizing Grant Fund Writing for a Homeless Care Center
  4. Tackling Racial Issues
  5. Teaching Empathy with Theatre
  6. Bridging awareness to pollution with plastic straws
  7. Helping Veterans get jobs

Some of these problems weren’t actual tech issues. Some were just people and marketing problems, namely (4) (5) (6) and (7). I strictly avoided those, because it would be a neverending time sink. Some issues were entirely too complex to handle, namely (1), in assisting blind people to get remote jobs.

I talked to each of these nonprofit leaders to dig deeper into the problems they were facing. And whether or not I could actually provide skills to solve them.

Day Two

Next saturday morning, everyone got together to start tackling the issues at hand. And segregating into different groups.

I met my new best friend, Aidan, here, whom we started having discussions on our opinions on each speaker on project. We talked about things like which projects had the greatest potential with the least amount of work? Which ones were scoped properly?

I decided on picking only 2 projects:

  • (SHST) Stopping Human and Sex Trafficking
  • (HOME) Optimizing Grant Writing Processes for a Homeless Care Center

Personally, I didn’t know that much about either of these. None of my friends or extended family have ever been homeless or subjected to human trafficking. All the same, that made me more interested in learning more about it.

Surprisingly, the organizers didn’t setup slack communication for any projects. This was the first issue that Aidan and I tackled. Getting email addresses for everyone involved. And seeing which projects each person was interested in as well as their skill sets. Project management 101.

(SHST) Stopping Human and Sex Trafficking

Day Two to Today

The first thing on the agenda to was to tackle the most complex project first. This was me and 3 other backend developers that spoke with “Bob” the organizer. Bob had great ideas moving forward on what things needed to be built. Namely, not having a central database to communicate with law enforcement, and lack of data at crime sites. The solution pitched was the following:

  • QR codes would be placed in bathrooms, so someone could make a report of sex trafficking (either the victim or bystander)
  • An API linked to government agencies with everything but caseID scrubbed, for HIPPA data compliance
  • Phone and video call logs be stored in an amazon S3 cache
  • Analytics for datamart applications

This wasn’t figured out in one day, but over a several week process. Most of the work I did was act as the communicator and facilitator, since the project was almost entirely a backend project. Which I hadn’t had any knowledge really up to this point, my focus has  been frontend development. This project is still a WIP.

  • Bob is great at public speaking but not the best project manager. Lack of communicationin getting data assets was crippling for the projects early timeline. Bob kept sending emails directly to only half the team… leaving the other half in the dark.
  • The backend developers on this project have created some amazing designs. A full blown backend architecture layout, definitions documents, fully laid out user case stories, etc. This was very eye opening to me, as someone who doesn’t have anyone to teach me these things.

(HOME) Optimizing Grant Writing Processes for a Homeless Care Center

Day Two

(HOME) has a database problem. Data is just….everywhere spread across many systems. I had originally thought this problem would have been the simplest to tackle, but it was far from that.

On day 2, I spoke with the organizer of (HOME). Let’s call him John. I live and breathe business development since this is what I do at work. I had a solution planned out for day one, and I laid it all out rather aggressively. Aidan (another developer) had stopped me about 5 minutes in, and I realized I had taken the wrong approach. That I didn’t listen to the full problem and assumed too many things.

Day 2 was discovery in the client’s processes. After speaking for nearly 2 hours, I realized there was a lot of things I still did not fully comprehend with this project.

However, one thing stood clear to me. The solution required an off-the-shelf product, either a database application like Airtable or a customized CRM platform like Salesforce.

This project wasn’t really development unlike (SHST), but more closesly tied to consultation and business strategy.

There were other team developers on board this project…. but they did not provide anything but ideas to the problem. I realized that people who attend these “hackathons” are a very mixed bag – they have the skills necessary or do not. I ended spearheading this project myself.

Day Three

Its now the next saturday. Up to this point, I reached out to John to provide all the data and documents I would need to provide a solution. There were a LOT of documents… almost 20+ PDFs and 100+ pages. Mostly for data entry. It was quite an eye opening experience, I never knew a homeless care center was so complex.

I hadn’t had time to build out a solution this saturday morning, so I allocated 3 hours before the meeting to build a MVP. The first step in the process was to just print everything out for the meeting, because I had a feeling no one else would and no one did.

So that’s what I did. I started to see the big picture in how (HOME) did things, after organizing each file in their respective category. These were:

  • Initial Client Forms – when a homeless person signs up for (HOME)s service, this includes many legal documents, etc
  • Followup Client Doc Forms – lightweight CRM for upkeeping changes
  • Business Strategy Docs – Insight maps, decision matrix guidelines, etc

From there, the big picture was clear. I had the clients 100 columns excel spreadsheets open as well. Whipped out, found a datamodel I could work with, and started some real & some fake data into an Airtable database. Generated some formulas, dumped some fake data, copy paste, and repeat until done. I focused mostly on OLTP (how data would be entered from different users, data normalization etc). Built a few forms to connected to that database, and after 2 hours it was a good enough MVP.

Day Three and a Half

When I came to the meeting, I did not even turn on my laptop. My prototype would vastly skew what information I got from the client, so I saved it for last. What I did first was seriously try to understand (HOME) as much as I could. Because we could always communicate in slack afterwards about technical issues

The first 3 hours in the meeting was me grilling John almost 100 questions about literally everything about (HOME). I mostly winged this on the spot and used a legalpad to take notes. My guideline was all the documents I printed, so we went document by document.

These questions ranged from the following:

  • What different symbols and abbreviations met
  • How the flow chart insight map works at the office
  • Who has access to which documents
  • How did cashflow come into (HOME)?
  • Were volunteers being paid or not?
  • …etc

When I noticed John getting bored I whipped out the prototype.

He was… mixed about it. I was the “go to” guy at this point leading the entire project here. I got grilled for almost 2 hours on everything about Airtable and what it was capable of. Luckily, I knew it fairly well, since I have developed a popular excel VBA plugin for it, and am also part of its Alpha Test Program.

On one side the problem of his 100 column spreadsheet was fixed. On the other hand, I didn’t really entirely understand the problem. Namely, there were two issues

  1. His specific issue of writing grants quickly from data analytics OLAP
  2. Cleaning up data entry and normalization OLTP

(2) is a requirement to have (1), so the Airtable prototype was still a huge step forward. However, (1) I had not even considered because John hadn’t given me the documentation regarding it.

Writing grants is a messy process, involving using many different data portals for different government agencies. We decided that for me to truly understand the problem, I had to do a site visitation

Day Four – Presentation

Site visitation was on hold, but John presented the work being done as part of this nonprofit hackathon.

Here’s my work on the board. Not much else to say here.

Day 5 Site Visitation

Some historical background – (HOME) used to be an old shanty mexican restaurant before it was renovated and converted 10 years ago. It was cofounded by the Head of AI & Legal Development for IBM. They know how to optimize processes with just plain file folders and documents. John’s personal experience is 10+ years in organizing conferences and conventions, but had only been on board for 1 year.

Upon visiting everything became much more clear now.

I ended up writing this all down on a legalpad winging it as I went. I don’t normally prepare questions in advance, I let gut instinct take over. Some insights:

  • Clients (the homeless person) first initial visit is very paperwork-y, but later meetings were informal.
  • Clients stayed at nearby motels and (HOME) had to keep track of when these fees were due / reimbursements
  • There were even MORE documents I was unaware of, for team collaboration. I made a note which ones were

Day 6++

One of the other developers on the team is created a custom CRM specifically for nonprofits like (HOME). With data and insights I helped lay out.

One thing that I did was identify every potential informational value stream to John. This is identifying every potential CRM relevant to his use case. What I did was run search results in r/nonprofit, compared 100+ threads and did sentimental analysis on every software mentioned just did it manually in all honesty. This is one way I benchmark the best solution software for a given application. Crowdsourcing software can be extremely effective sometimes.

John said this nonprofit hackathon has been very helpful. Notably, from his own words:

  • Explaining everything to a newcomer like me helps him identify issues in onboarding / training volunteers
  • He is now aware of many more solutions to his problems.

In Summary

Momentum 2018 was a great learning experience for learning how to help nonprofit organizations.

(HOME) – Homeless care center management. I ended up doing more business CRM analyst type work. There was a LOT more client discovery than I had assumed. Essentially, I learned how to run a homeless care center. I built a mini-CRM prototype. It didn’t get adapted. I identified all the pain points that my developer friend capitalized in building a profitable venture for niche cases like (HOME). They gained a lot from the ordeal. Learning new tools and technologies they weren’t aware of.

(SHSE) Stopping Human and Sex Trafficking. I am taking a backseat here. Most work I am currently doing is documentation, endpoint design, and facilitation in communication. It has been a great learning experience seeing backend architecture from the ground up. Especially for HIPPA data compliant. From the initial prototype phase, to the documentation, workflow management, etc. Its a work in progress.

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