If you were putting together a crack team for a 25 hour coding marathon, and you only had one person who could write code, your dream combination might not be an acoustic consultant, and two photographers, one of whom had never written a line of code in his life. With an age range of 18 to 65, and lots of enthusiasm if not technical know-how, Keiran (the multi-talented geek) Susan (the acoustician – and to be fair, a geek in her own right) Lisa (the photographer and creative) and Robert (the other, slightly more ‘mature’ photographer and bureaucrat) signed up for this year’s Hack Manchester event representing Hack Oldham.
The way it works is that a number of event sponsors set challenges inviting a technical solution. Teams choose a challenge, then on the day – and all through the night! – develop write and test a computer-based application. Preparation is meant to fairly minimal, and using code that’s already been written is definitely a no-no.
The challenge we chose was set by AND Digital, and was in the form of a question: “Can clever tech help turn passenger misery into passenger delight?”
We held one planning meeting, where an idea started to take shape. A web app that would geolocate you (show you where you are on a map), give you information about interesting places in the area, provide text, video and audio content, and reward your research with a badge, which could be collected. Badges somehow became badgers (thank you Susan), and the Travel Badger application was born.
So off we went to the Museum and Science and Industry on Saturday 27th October. Lisa wasn’t too well, so worked with us from home – kind of cool having remote working on a tech project.
The value of having a team with a range of skills, not just coding, quickly became apparent. While Keiran started to create the app, Susan worked on the audio content, Robert created text and video for the app and for submission to the judges and Lisa designed the artwork that made it look pretty – or ‘Head of Colouring In’ as she appointed herself.
As it started to come together we realised that Travel Badger had a particular benefit for a group we feel very passionate about – people with autism. Many people with autism find travel very challenging because of the sensory overload of sounds, smells and people. Travel Badger allowed them to focus on reading, listening through headphones and watching their screen and cutting out the external stimuli to some extent. From that point we developed the app with autism in mind, and by the time it was submitted to the judges, what had been a fairly generic app – and still was useful to anyone – became something targeted at helping a specific part of the population.
We’re going to skip over the sleep deprivation, chillingly cold room temperature and Robert’s snoring, Susan heading off in completely the wrong direction to her hotel, Keiran’s grumpiness as the deadline approached and the loud-mouthed posh-boy on the next table bragging aggressively about his wealth. So fast-forward to the awards show on Sunday evening, when happily Lisa was able to join us. We learnt that 15 teams had entered our challenge, no doubt attracted by the flashy Sennheiser earphones on offer for the winning team. We were delighted when our video popped up on the screen as one of the three finalists. We didn’t win, but we were thrilled and moved when AND Digital created a Special Prize for us because our entry ticked all the boxes for their company values. Our prize was a £100 donation to the National Autism Society, and we all agreed that that was better than winning. Susan herself is autistic, and Susan and Lisa both have autistic children who were watching the awards on the livestream. We’d be lying if we said that a few tears weren’t shed.
So what have we learnt along the way?
You don’t have to be a team of coders to enter a coding competition – having a range of skills is a big advantage
Having a strong emotional connection to what you’re doing really helps
It was a lot of fun
Would we do it again? Definitely.