Accelerate77: Spantree's Hackathon for Social Good

Kevin Greene

 3 min read

Since its launch in 2009, Spantree’s team has shared a passion for volunteerism. As the second largest non-profit market in the country, Chicago is home to many worthy organizations and with a diverse range of personal interests and passions among us, we felt a unanimous pull to use our skills and talents to service our community as a team. With the spirit of social justice in mind, it seemed fitting to dedicate our community building efforts toward a special project each year on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Thus began our annual Hackathon for Social Good.

In the first year of the Hackathon, Cedric and Gary took this time to work with Accelerate77, a nonprofit committed to "identifying current sustainability initiatives in all of Chicago’s 77 community areas; connecting them with one another to inspire new ideas, practices, self-consciousness and motivation through peer interchange; and collaborating with residents in systematic learning, planning, and collective action." Before their work began, the good folks at Accelerate77 had already drafted a list of over 600 initiatives and compiled their information into a Google spreadsheet. Though quite organized, our friends at Accelerate77 found it difficult to navigate and share the full depth and breadth of their project-centric data with others.

By leveraging Elasticsearch and an internal Elasticsearch-facing frontend framework Spantree had already developed, Gary and Cedric created a working prototype of a robust initiative search in under 10 hours. Using the prototype, Spantree was able to quickly test out various UI elements, such as a card interface. Other improvements, such as a Yelp-style embedded map that updated based on search results, were immediately workable into existing Spantree products.

By the second Hackathon a year later, the entire Spantree team was enthusiastically working on the Accelerate77 project. In the course of a day, we were able to get a zero maintenance product that fits with their design by the end of the day. We are excited to announce it will be a part of their website relaunch in the coming months.

As a best practice in team building and morale, we found our Hackathon for Social Good promoted a positive office culture and a sense of cohesion amongst the team. Equally important, we saw some real business benefits. We grew in-house knowledge and created reusable assets for search interfaces.

Check out http://accelerate77.spantree.net for the beta version!

If you would like to start working with non-profits, but don't know where to start, contacting one on this site will set you on the right path. If you're organizing an internal hackathon, we have several tips to make sure it goes smoothly.

Keys to a Successful Internal Hackathon

  • Have a project picked ahead of time. We spent several lunches talking about what nonprofits or charitable works we considered helping, and this allowed everyone to get in the mindset of what Accelerate77 needs.

  • Schedule a short planning meeting the day before. 30 minutes of planning allows team members to jump in immediately, and it prevents the team from running out of things to do before the day is finished.

  • If there is pre-existing work, make sure everyone can run the project. Two hours spent debugging a year old project is ten hours wasted if the rest of the team cannot continue.

  • Deploy something. Even if it won't be used just yet, deploying something creates a feeling of accomplishment, bringing a nice end to the day and a tangible demonstration of the work the team has done.