Hack for Humanity – Girls in Tech Vancouver: An Overview

This reading break, I participated in my first-ever hackathon, called Hack for Humanity, which was hosted by the Vancouver chapter of Girls in Tech, a non-profit organization focussed on the engagement, education, and empowerment of girls and women who are passionate about technology. I personally make it a goal to attend at least one networking event per semester, and luckily, I came across this event on my Facebook newsfeed, of all places to stumble upon when it comes to networking events. It also aligned with my personal and career interests, and it fell on a day that fit with my schedule – as soon as I read the details on its event page, I immediately signed myself up to reserve a spot in line.

You may be wondering, what is a hackathon? According to Oxford Dictionary, a hackathon is “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming”.

Generally, hackathons last up to 24 hours or more, and participants have to bring their personal belongings and stay at the host location overnight. That I cannot do, as I value my bed and home-cooked meals too much. That is one of the main factors that draws me back from signing up for hackathons; however, I went ahead and signed up to participate in Hack for Humanity as they eliminated the need for those to stay overnight. Participants are able to go home, get a good night’s sleep, and continue on to Day 2 the next morning.

As the days were leading up to the event, I was getting anxious and didn’t know what to really expect, as I have limited coding experience and I signed up to join Hack for Humanity by myself. However, three days prior, I received an email from the event organizers, Laurel Chan and Angela Chen, entailing what to expect on the day of, as well as an invitation to the official event group on Slack, a team-messaging and collaborative-based app. I made sure to ask plenty of questions beforehand, and both did an excellent job of answering them.

Day 1

I arrived at the Hugh Dempster Pavilion building at UBC around 9:45 AM, where I was greeted by the volunteer coordinators. I signed in and received a free t-shirt and some goodies upon entry. Shortly after, I entered the lecture hall adjacent, where I took a seat and quickly struck up a conversation with the group sitting next to me – upon getting to know them, they were all first year UBC students studying BUCS, which stands for the Business and Computer Science Combined Major. Introductions started at 11:00 AM, and we got to find out the sponsors for Hack for Humanity. Some of the top sponsors, such as DarkVision and RightMesh, two tech companies with offices located in Vancouver, offered some really neat prizes; DarkVision would issue a $2500 CAD cheque to the Most Innovative Project, and RightMesh would issue $1000 CAD worth of Ethereum, a type of cryptocurrency, to the Most Socially Aware Project. Once the event got underway, our group decided to start hacking at one of the study rooms in the Hugh Dempster building. Finding an empty room was not hard at all, given that the event was hosted on a weekend. It was just a matter of getting ready and starting on our project.

(My group and I wearing the pink t-shirts!)

Not gonna lie, it took us at least an hour before figuring out what our project was going to be on and what its main purpose was going to entail. We ultimately decided on creating our project with the intent of connecting non-profit organizations that focused on child welfare and poverty, such as World Vision and PLAN, as one of our group members, and her family, used to sponsor a child in need. Our project was called Telehope – a portmanteau of the words “telephone” and “hope”.

The Actual Hacking

I guess this is where the fun (but also tiresome and gruelling) part begins. As all of us in our group has limited-to-zero coding experience, we couldn’t actually create a functioning program, like an app you would download in the App Store. Luckily, Girls in Tech called up some knowledgeable mentors, and one of them came up to us and proposed the idea of using Marvel, a prototype-based software as a substitute for coding. In all, this made our project so much easier and straightforward to work on.

Hours passed by… but it felt like only minutes passed by instead. A tip: if you know you are going to spend the entire day working on something at one sitting, make sure to get up, take a walk around, get some fresh air, and drink plenty of water. Even with the windows cracked open and excusing ourselves to the bathroom every half an hour, it’s always important to remain physically active during your hacking.

How did we survive our first hackathon? Of course, with pizza from Freshslice, snacks and Starbucks coffee, endless Youtube tutorials and Google searches, and assistance from the mentors.

After what seemed like a million years, we received a message from Laurel and Angela on Slack telling all of the participants to make our way back to the lecture hall at the Hugh Dempster building, where we all originally met up earlier in the morning. The hosts gracefully wrapped up Day 1 festivities and gave us an itinerary of what to expect for Day 2, which was held at RED Academy near downtown Vancouver.

Day 2

On the outside, rustic and old-fashioned. On the inside, modern, spacious, and clean. This is the building of RED Academy, a bootcamp where those can enrol in courses relating to UX and UI Design, Web and App Development, and Digital Marketing. This was also the host location for Hack for Humanity’s judging competition and after-party. Once I found my way inside, I headed straight over to the kitchen, where lunch was being served. I chatted with my teammates and socialized with some fellow participants who were very eager as to what Day 2 was going to hold. Once we finished our burritos and iced tea, we all congregated to the main meeting room, where Laurel and Angela introduced the judges and went over the prizes once again, and got 2-3 teams to go inside a room, where judges would go inside and take a look at all of the projects.

(Photo: The Vancouver location of RED Academy.)

It totally slipped our minds that we had to make some sort of presentation, but there’s always the saying, “Fake it until you make it.” (Don’t actually take this saying seriously, it was only for just this one time.) But to be honest, as more and more judges went up to our group, presenting wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be – if anything, we delightfully engaged in some chatter, whether it would be about tech, or what we were studying for in the school.

(Photo: Our project, Telehope)

Once judging was over, we waited for a short period for the winners to be announced. Although each project was unique in its own way that could help benefit our society, only a few chosen winners were selected. From what I recall, the Most Innovative Project was awarded to PicTalk, an app that would assist those who are visually-impaired through text-to-speech assistive technologies, while the Most Socially Aware Project went to Online Sex-Work Risk Prediction, which protects online users from falling prey into online, unsafe sex work based on their activity on adult websites.

Hack for Humanity came to an end with a huge thank-you to the event hosts, sponsors, judges, and participants who came out during the Family Day long weekend. The judges were very pleased to see how popular hackathons are becoming and how more and more undergraduate students are taking part in this type of event. To conclude my thoughts on this hackathon, as well as hackathon in general, I would definitely recommend them to anyone, from those who are very proficient in coding to newbies wanting to get their feet wet in the technology sector. I signed up on my own and walked away knowing a few more individuals who are just as passionate about technology as I am. And attend a hackathon to gain experience! Prior to this event, I had no idea what Marvel was, or what kinds of programs could I use in lieu of creating a project right from scratch. But now, when it comes to school projects or any project where I am asked to create an app, I can create the prototype using Marvel, and design each step from there. In the span of 48 hours, I have learned some new bits here and there when it comes to technology.