May 14, 2014
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A Catalytic Reaction – adventures in a civic hackathon

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What can happen when you draw together a group of strangers, give them a challenge to complete in a limited amount of time, then step back and watch ideas and relationships coalesce?   Significant projects which benefit communities can be conceived and developed!

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Goucher’s graduate programs hosted their first civic hackathon the weekend of April 11-13.  A hackathon is a gathering of teams of software developers, and others, who work toward a challenge in a set time frame.  For this civic hackathon, the graduate programs also included “citizens, scholars, entrepreneurs, designers, and other creative thinkers.”   The challenge:  in the space of about 40 hours, each team was to design, code, and demonstrate something (app, website, program, etc.) that would serve a community.  At the end of the challenge, each team made a 15-minute presentation and was judged by a panel on four criteria:  originality, impact, sustainability, and design.  Cash prizes were awarded to the winning entries.

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I arrived at Goucher feeling terribly inadequate.  I confess that I had never even heard of a hackathon until I received the invitation Amy Skillman sent to MACS alum.  Googling the concept heightened my anxiety, especially when I read how competitive and serious a hackathon typically is.  I am not a techie, and I didn’t have any great ideas just awaiting development.  But I grabbed a friend I knew would enjoy the stimulating environment of a MACS event and we two novices headed to Goucher for the weekend.  We practically pinky-swore, though, that we’d be on the same team.

Friday evening the participants discussed ideas, and we all watched and listened for concepts that engaged our interest and creativity.  The most awkward moments came as we surveyed all the wonderful possibilities and informally negotiated which ideas would be chosen and who would join each team.  Uniqueness of concept and ease of development were high priorities.  Teams coalesced and went to work.

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And something amazing happened!   A catalytic reaction took place as groups of strangers convened.   Each team rallied around an idea brought by a team member—an idea which had lived in that person’s mind for a time, but which needed some help to be developed.  Unimaginably, in just a single weekend the concepts were refined, developed, and brought to life!  Each team left Goucher on Sunday with a tool intended to help a specific community.

The teams exemplified the partnerships we MACsers have been taught to cultivate.  The strength of our team came not from its homogeneity but from its diversity.   As we discovered each team member’s vantage point and skills, we quickly realized that it was most expedient to trust one another within our arenas of expertise.   We made trajectory-oriented decisions together, but then released one another to pursue the pieces of the whole that we would work together to assemble.   The limited time frame kept us moving and protected us from getting bogged down in details—but it also required sacrifice as we each had times of letting go of some component that was important to us as individuals.  Our team was also strengthened by its partnership with the community we were hoping to serve; our concept originated with a volunteer firefighter, so we consulted with firefighters periodically as we developed our program.  Our partnership as a team and with the community promises to bear fruit—born from a single short weekend together!

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My anxiety was unwarranted.  This was simultaneously an intense but relaxing—and FUN—experience.   I spent time with some amazing people!  I’ll admit, though, that I’m relieved I did not embarrass myself and am thankful I was able to contribute something of significance to my team.  I’m guessing I’m not the only participant who feels this way.  Bring on the next challenge!

To learn more about the hackathon, check out the Facebook page, Coding for Community – A Civic Hackathon

To view the projects, check out the gallery


OAnna Ralph is a 2013 graduate of the MACS program.  Her 20+ years as a pastor’s wife, along with several years as a missionary in Ethiopia and Haiti, informed her experiences in the MACS program, while her coursework deepened her interest in the intersection of culture and spirituality.  Her capstone research explored the role of missionaries in culture change and sustainability and culminated in a set of best practices for the emerging field of cultural sustainability.  Anna is joining the MACS faculty, teaching a new course on Culture, Spirituality, and Sustainability in the upcoming January (2015) residency.  Anna, a homeschooling mom, lives with her husband and son near her daughters and grandchildren in southeast PA.

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