For 11 straight hours in November, female IT students from the University of Missouri-St. Louis participated in the school’s first “Women’s Hackathon.” They were joined by experienced programmers from area companies such as Enterprise, MasterCard, Boeing and our own Julia Koelsch of Spry Digital.
The challenge presented was to form teams and build a game, web application, mobile app or desktop app designed to help organizations or communities prepare for an effective response for natural disasters. By the end of the event, the 30 students had created ten different prototyped applications. The entire session was provided to the participants for free.
We sat down with Julia to talk about the experience and learn more about the event.
Why was it that Spry wanted to participate this particular event?
It sounded really interesting for both participants and mentors. And events like this help students get interested in software development while learning from and interacting with professional developers.
What was your favorite part about the experience?
I loved working with my team and I was proud of the app we built. It helped people to communicate after a natural disaster. The idea was that you could set up account ahead of time, and if disaster hit in your area you would let the app know if you were OK. At minimum, it reduced the amount of people calling around all at once and reduced strain on communication towers.
What was the most valuable thing the students learned?
There was a brainstorm session first, which helped everyone get great ideas going, then narrow them all down. This approach helped emphasize that the best ideas or apps might just be the ones that you didn’t think about at first. They also provided the teams with Legos and asked us to demonstrate the app using the legos. This made you think more of logistics, which was not something I’d thought about before.
What were some examples of the disaster scenarios and the applications the teams came up with?
The groups were able to make up their own natural disasters. Our group focused on helping people communicate with each other after disaster, and others focused on connecting people with items to others who needed them. Some connected volunteers with volunteer opportunities. Others were games for kids which could be used to teach the kids what do if something happened.
Did the students seem well-prepared for the challenges?
Yes. Most of them had some background in the field and they were programming students. They all knew the basics and did well.
Why was it called a “Hackathon?”
The term means a combination of hack and marathon. This particular hackathon was only for one day, so it was even more condensed than your typical weekend hackathon. You have to get as much done as you can in the time given. The participants don’t come in as a pre-formed group, instead teams are formed randomly. Then you have to quickly decide what you are building based on strengths and talents of who is on the team.
Is there anything else you’d want people to know about the whole experience?
Overall it was just a great experience, and I hope UMSL continues to host this event.
This particular hackathon was specifically for women students, which is a great idea. The tech industry is still struggling with how to attract and retain women, and events like these are encouraging and supportive of women interested in a technical career. It’s a thrilling feeling to work together as a group and produce tangible results in such a short amount of time. The joy and feeling of satisfaction I get from building sites and apps is what I love about my career, and I am so happy I could share that feeling with future app developers.