Apr 29, 2014

GraduateSPeek: Coding for Community: A Civic Hackathon, Thoughts from Lena Shrestha ’13



I don’t know what possessed me to sign up. That’s what I was thinking as I packed my bags to head to Goucher for the Coding for Community: A Civic Hackathon event. Oh, I know you saw me on Facebook, posting excitedly that I would be attending. I know I sent out “Come to the Hackathon!” texts. Repeating the inclusive rhetoric from the event site, I even coerced my special friend to register. But in the days and hours leading up to the event, I starting growing an anxiety about the Hackathon.


I knew everyone would be nice. This is a Welch Center event, after all. I wasn’t afraid of meeting new people or sharing ideas. My anxiety had to do with my contribution to the projects. The more I thought about what the event would actually be — reifying ideas for cultural, environmental, and social impact into some kind of technological form – the more insecure I felt about my presence there. I’m no techie. I know that coding involves… typing. I wasn’t sure how I could help a project besides brainstorming, and I did not want to feel like dead weight.


Although I arrived at Coding for Community with ideas for potential projects, I chose to join a different team. I decided to work with graduate directors Tiffany Espinosa and Tom Walker to create web-based graphic visualizations of visitor data to help the National Park Service. Roopali Sharma and Tony Burks, both from DonQuiSoft, the software company event sponsor, added tech experience and know-how to our group. We named our team “Let’s Go Parks!”


As we honed our ideas and started working on the project, my fears about my contributions dissipated. Everyone in the group brought different skills to the table. Tiffany said that she felt that having new perspectives on her previous research helped shape it in new ways, which is good. I also felt that I was able to help in ways that I hadn’t considered before, as I was biting my nails in anxious pre-Hackathon worry. I’m not a graphic artist, as a profession or hobby —  especially compared to some of the students in the Digital Arts program – but I do have an aesthetic eye and a little bit of a background in the arts. That helped me design the visual components of our project. Tom and I can also turn ideas into real-world programs, so we incorporated that into Let’s Go Parks as well. There was also copy to write, graphics to find online, emails to send back and forth, and PowerPoints to perfect. My apprehension about twiddling my thumbs post-brainstorm was unfounded.


Driving back to the hotel after a thirteen-hour marathon workday, I thought about what I had hoped to get out of the Hackathon weekend. Now that I am a graduate of the Cultural Sustainability program, I miss residencies. I come up to Towson sometimes, swiping cookies from MACS receptions and reminiscing fondly of my first visit to Goucher. I recalled a blog entry I wrote about my first residency, and I found it applicable to the Hackathon, too.

Here’s what I wrote over three years ago: “A sitar is played by plucking a multitude of strings, but leaving several ‘sympathetic strings’ untouched. These strings reverberate upon hearing a correct tone, producing a drone sound in the background. I feel like my experience in the residency matched the excited reverberation of a sympathetic string. Hearing other viewpoints, I became inspired to sing with my own ideas. I do not think that I would have felt that way without becoming included in such a community.”

I realized that it was that reverberating feeling that I was seeking when I registered for the Hackathon. Working in unison with people of different backgrounds, everyone working for community good, the Hackathon was like an accelerated residency. It was a hive of buzzing ideas.

I know what possessed me to register for the Hackathon: the opportunity to participate in that process. I left Goucher on Sunday simply happy to have been a part of the hive. The product of our Let’s Go Parks efforts was just icing on the cake. Or the Skittles on the cookie, Tony.

View all four hackathon winners and view more photos on Coding for Community – A Civic Hackathon’s Facebook page

lenaLena Shrestha is a 2013 graduate of the MACS program. Her sustainability passions include the negotiations between the cultures of the traditional and the changing, especially in how they impact community well-being and economy. She and fellow MACS grad, Sunny Fitzgerald, are excited to be launching an online boutique this year – Heretic Honey – which will support independent artisans. Lena’s Capstone, “Cultures a la Carte: Semiotic Construction of ‘Glocal’ Identities in Nepal,” is available to read in Goucher Library’s Special Collections, and you can also read her “Blog About Culture.” In addition to academic interests, Lena enjoys introducing children to the sport of competitive swimming, and she volunteers as a coach for a Special Olympics swim team. She lives in the Washington, DC metro area (with two cats).

GraduateSPeek: A Peek at what MACS Graduates are up to.


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