Caitlin Cress — The Hale Center for Journalism
The project space at Think Big Partners in the Crossroads is packed: the open space is full of coders, designers and dozens of computer screens, a taco bar covers the kitchen island and conference rooms are marked with signs like “quiet room” and “massage room.” The room is buzzing with quiet chatter and clattering keyboards with the occasional peal of laughter. Welcome to the Nerdery’s Overnight Web Challenge: an annual hackathon in Minneapolis, Minn., Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago that pairs nonprofit organizations with teams of web pros with the goal of revamping the company’s website in 24 hours.
The challenge began Saturday at 9 a.m. and ended with judges visiting each team’s workspace at 8:45 a.m. Sunday. While a lot of work happened during this 24-hour sprint, the sites are not live quite yet. Teams have a couple weeks to make adjustments, and the nonprofits have time to plug in their content. The final awards ceremony — the winning team will receive bragging rights — takes place April 30.
Damion Broadaway, a software engineer for the Nerdery’s Kansas City branch, said this hackathon is different than most.
“A lot of hackathons exist, and this isn’t a bad thing, they exist for themselves… They exist to play with things: say there’s a new technology or a new (programming) language you want to try out,” he said.
These typical hackathons focus on the latest technology, but that approach doesn’t work when designing and coding a new website for a nonprofit. Many nonprofits have training and budgetary limitations, so creating an easily maintained site is the priority, not implementing the most cutting-edge technology, Broadaway said. He said these sites will hopefully be used for two or three years.
John Rensenhouse, managing director of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, saw an article about the challenge in the Kansas City Star, and knew immediately he should apply.
“I saw it, and I thought ‘Wow, we need a new website,’” he said.
The current KC Actors Theatre website is eight or nine years old, and the company is interested in a sleeker design with easier back-end functionality. Rensenhouse said he currently doesn’t know how to update anything on the organization’s site. He hoped the challenge could change this.
“This will provide a good sort of training session for me to be in on the development of the new website from the start, so I know exactly what’s going on and where the secrets are buried in it,” he said.
Rensenhouse, along with representative from the other three nonprofits — KVC Health Systems, Rosedale Development Association and the Vasculitus Foundation — were required to be in attendance for all 24 hours of the hackathon.
To stay awake and productive, web pros like Meg Adams chugged coffee — or High Octane Liquid Nerd Fuel — and snacked on candy.
The nonprofits and teams of web pros were not paired until arriving at the hackathon Saturday morning. This made for much speculation on both sides before the challenge began.
Adams, a front end and graphic designer, said this uncertainty was terrifying and exciting. She had never participated in a hackathon before, but was excited to use her skills on a volunteer basis.
“It’s really empowering to be able to use skills that I’ve worked really hard to learn and master for volunteer work,” she said. “I’m just so excited to make a real, tangible difference for whatever non profit we get.”
Adams and her team, Inevitable, were paired with Rensenhouse and KC Actors Theatre. A sleek and interactive navigation they had planned to apply to whichever site they were assigned no longer made sense to use once her team discovered the target demographic for the theatre is Kansas Citians in their 60s or 70s.
“It just wouldn’t work,” she said. “It could be confusing since it’s not as intuitive maybe for that age range.”
After overcoming that challenge, Adams and her team had to focus intently to catch up, which they did. She said they were still fixing parts of the code in the 30 seconds before the judges walked up to her team’s table.
Rensenhouse was excited to work with so many expert designers and coders.
“I just stare on in stupefaction and am impressed by their wizardry and just make decisions when they need me,” he said.
Jenny Kutz, the director of communications for KVC Health Systems, was the challenge representative for her company. She was still in a tired haze Monday morning, but said the overall experience was more than worthwhile.
KVC Health Systems is a child welfare and behavioral health organization that provides child welfare services on behalf of the state of Kansas. The organization aims to reunite children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect with their birth families, but this is not always possible. In those cases, KVC facilitates no-fee adoptions to help children find their “forever families.”
KVC’s adoption website needed serious updating, Kutz said. The upgrades requested by KVC for the challenge were aimed at making the personalities of the children stand out. Kutz said the new site accomplishes this goal: it supports video, which the old site did not. Children can now record videos that prospective parents can view.
“Nothing is better for a kid to tell his or her story than video,” she said. “You can see their personalities really shine.”
Eventually, parents looking to adopt will be able to record videos that potential children can view. Kutz wants this site to be like Match.com for adoption.
Adams also was in a sleepy-sounding fog like Kutz Monday morning, but agreed that the experience was worthwhile.
“Even though I’m still pretty exhausted, I’m already excited for next year,” she said. “The experience was not only rewarding, in that we were able to do something so amazing for KCAT, but challenging and empowering.”