Taking part in a Charity Hackathon

I was new to Dunedin and looking to make connections. Here was an opportunity mix meeting people with making a contribution to the community. I’d taken part in game jams before but hadn’t heard of a hackathon. What was it? Could I go without being a coder? Could our team work on a project through the night and eat pizza?

Big things ahead

‘IT Professionals for Charity’

ImpactNPO holds hackathons throughout New Zealand and describes itself as ‘IT Professionals for Charity’. Their events take place over weekends with the objective of giving help to local charities.

If you are a designer who is starting out, at some point you might decide to do some free work for exposure – if you’re going to, then this is the place to do it! I mean absolutely do it for a charity, then everyone wins.

Examples include building a website or app, setting up IT solutions, and data analysis. They’re a clever bunch and they’re very organised. I suspect ImpactNPO also utilise these weekends as a talent scouting exercise to identify promising students – up and comers take note!

Signal Grad School is another super-dynamic outfit, and they’re based right here in Dunedin. They do post-grad learning and business training for IT and IT linked subjects. They also hold seminars, workshops and meetups for all things tech at their super-connected venue. This great setting was the location of the Hackathon I attended.

Make your move

The weekend kicked off on a Friday night with three presentations. Each charity explained their operation, their needs and what they hoped to achieve over the weekend. The presentations were then followed by a speed-dating session with a table with chairs for each organisation. We were then invited to visit each table in turn to find out a bit more to help with our choice for the weekend.

Team Sea Lion take the plunge on their presentation

Who doesn’t like sea lions? The Dunedin based New Zealand Sea Lion Trust, wanted to add an online shop to their site. Local organisation Able Mental Health sought to review their IT needs and reduce spending. Last but not least, Dunedin Curtain Bank were long overdue a new website. Having a person close to me with mental health problems drew me to Able, but my skills were more closely suited to what Dunedin Curtain Bank needed. The sea lions looked to have plenty of company from the get-go so I gave them a wide berth.

So lonely!

Sadly, at the end of the introductions on Friday it turned out that Able had nobody to help them.

What happens now?

This was due to the fact that there were only two IT professionals; Jack from Bluetwist IT who was with the sea lions, and myself. Dear reader, be sure to spread the word if a hackathon comes to your town or city. These weekends make huge differences to the lives of charity workers and the people they help – make sure there’s enough volunteers on hand!

Hackathon is go: and it’s curtains for me

Our Dunedin Curtain Bank hackathon team was comprised of the manager Sara, two students from Dunedin Polytech Luke and Jack, and me. We set up in a space on Saturday morning and got stuck right in. I set up a WordPress site and Jack from Blue Twist lent me a hand with some domain shifting before heading off to the sea lions.

Sara, me and Luke

Distress call answered

Later in the morning, Luis, a very capable and charismatic guy from ImpactNPO turned up and rescued the Able mental health team. It was impressive to see them work with him.

Luis, the big gun from ImpactNPO

He took them beyond looking at their IT budget and the weekend workshop turned into a full audit of the company. They got significantly more than they bargained for; looking a bit shellshocked and amazed later in the morning.

Hijinks and hard work

Meanwhile, I learned that providing curtains to those who have trouble getting them, and making their houses warm was the prime function of Dunedin Curtain Bank. They also run a shop from their physical site. For all this they required a variety of customer uses for their website, and had lots of stories and information to get out there.

Getting busy on the whiteboard sitemap

We started out by identifying the customers and then making a site map, which listed the pages and content. Next, we added calls to action and made some goals for the site. These included financial donation functionality (via Stripe) and a form to apply for curtains. The back end of these two functions was taken on by the students, while I got to making the page layouts and graphics.

“Please, mum STOP!”

Whilst the students and I worked on the site, Sara cherry-picked photos for its pages and connected social media. She did a great job of embarrassing her teenage daughter by proudly declaring “I’m Instagramming!”. Hackathons present a great opportunity for time pressured volunteers and charity workers to enjoy a fun atmosphere whilst getting loads of stuff done. Many of these tasks will have been on their to-do list a lot longer were it not for the hackathon – how good are these things?

Attend a hackathon and we all win

Working at a hackathon for free, and for the benefit of the community was a really satisfying experience and I strongly urge anyone who is reading this and interested: Track one down! Drop ImpactNPO a line, or start one up yourself. There was a great atmosphere, and the speed of work was rapid – like a gameshow but with substance and true camaraderie.

It’s a good lark all this hackathon business

It also struck me that this would be a great place for starting out designers and developers who might not yet have a lot of clients. If you are a designer who is starting out, at some point you might decide to do some free work for exposure – if you’re going to then this is the place to do it. I mean absolutely do it for a charity, then everyone wins.

To tell the truth, the only disappointment from the weekend was that on Saturday afternoon we went home around 5-ish. This dashed my hopes for working late into the night and ordering pizza (which is my idealised picture of a hackathon). I did however, start up a bit early on the Sunday and bash out a couple of icons for the homepage.

Luis wrapping up the presentations with impressive TED Talk posture

Not quite the end

Sunday went really smoothly, and time flew. We got about 75% done by the end of the day and I was more than happy to pick up the rest of the work over the next couple of weeks with an hour here and there. We did a presentation of where we’d got to by the end of Sunday afternoon, and Luis hosted and enthused about the results. Everyone was very happy and flushed with the success of the weekend.

The finished product

As far as sites go for NPOs with few resources, it’s looking good. It’s a bit messy in places but it’s doing the heavy lifting that we set out. Using WordPress with Elementor Page Builder kept things pretty smooth. Sara from Dunedin Curtain Bank can make edits and basic additions easily.

Here’s a few words from Sara about the weekend:

Dunedin Curtain Bank gives curtains to those most in need.

I met Toby, Jack and Luke at Impact NPO Hackathon. Dunedin Curtain Bank had won a funding application to throw a pitch at this incredible weekend of socially minded IT professionals who would help charities try to attain their online dreams of reaching more in need and spreading the word of the great work we do.

On being designated our team I was asked to describe our organisational website needs on a board and the work progressed from there. I personally could not believe the work that was achieved in that 3 day weekend –

Dunedin Curtain Bank went from having a website that had 2 pages with a homepage that had a black box with some description of what we did and a dreadful diagram of how to get curtains to a professionally designed bright and easy to read website that is the envy of so many.

I still feel grateful to Jack, Toby and Luke every day for the work that was put in, Toby’s design and unfailing ongoing support that the curtain bank could not do without.  

Thank you!

Dunedin Curtain Bank 


Observations from the weekend:

  • Charities aren’t always tech savvy, so this is a good chance to practice exploring needs and explaining processes.
  • There will be a residual work requirement potentially! (and I’m really enjoying it Sara)
  • There was an oversupply of cider
  • A student requested softer tissues at one point during the weekend
  • The food laid on from Precinct was delicious
  • ImpactNPO are a fantastic organisation
  • Signal Grad School is a superb venue
  • Anyone should love these weekends – get involved or make one happen!
  • Doing design work for charity can be beneficial in many ways check out the Disabled Resource Centre Map in the infographics section of this site as another example.

Did you ever Hackathon?

I’d love to hear other experience of hackathon recipients or volunteers in New Zealand and beyond! – share your experiences in the comments or let me know what you thought to this story – if it inspires you, get looking for an event!

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