Pete Hamilton

Code, Grannies and a Gallon of Redbull

So earlier this week I attended my first ever hackathon so I thought what better for a first real blog post than a quick writeup!

For those who have been paying attention on twitter recently to all things #accessibility and #interactivism related, last weekend LBi Offices were home to the first Google Interactivism event, a student developer accessibility hack weekend organised by Simpl and FutureGov. People from many backgrounds turned up to hack together cool new ideas including accessibility experts, student developers, Gransnet-ers and guys from Google who were there help and mentor us all through it.

I am aware that this has already been covered by some of the organisers of the event and you can find the other write-ups at some of the links below:

Also, you can see some fab comments from the gransnet members who were in my team (1st three at that link). I know all the gransnetters were amazing but I would like to say a special thanks to ours who even got involved in some coding (of a sort) at one point!

I also highly recommend you check out the Interactivism Flickr Page for loads of pictures from the event. Note the excessively large number of post-its and diagrams everywhere. It was epic.

So, anyway, not sure quite what to expect, I put my name down for the event and turned up on their doorstep at 9am Friday morning, laptop in hand. Seemed like a good turn out but later it became apparent that quite a few people hadn’t turned up, mostly students, this caused quite a few issues when trying to distribute people between all the great ideas but it was definitely their loss!

The talk was started with some info from Andrew Eland at Google and Dominic Campbell from FutureGov on what the weekend was all about and how it would work. We then had a talk from Mike Bradley, a lecturer in Product Design at Middlesex University who had some great points and good things to consider when designing our products regarding user experience. This was followed up by an absolutely brilliant presentation by Peter Oakley, otherwise known as geriatric1927 what can I say, go watch his videos. We were treated to this gem, I guarantee anyone who has tried to teach their grandparents to use a computer (and of course the grandparents themselves) will appreciate it:

Next up were the people with a plan, these were the guys who had the big ideas on which the rest of us were about to be let loose. Around this point I was getting pretty excited and working out which project to actually choose was definitely proving a challenge.

I eventually chose to work on an NHS Appointment Timetable Board application which would let people know if their appointment was running behind before they set off for a delayed appointment (unknown to them) 4 hours too early. I thought this was great and so pretty much went straight over to join Kate who had pitched the idea. Initially we had quite a few people who obviously agreed with me as we soon had a good group of professionals, gransnet-ers and student developers all itching to pitch in.

Unfortunately, the no-show students (seriously, you missed out!) meant that some teams were very thin on the ground developer/designer-wise and so we quickly lost half our members to other teams, bit sad but it was the fairest thing to do I guess.

We got straight down to it, discussing ideas while a flurry of buzzword and key-phrase post-its flew onto the table from Leisa

Pretty soon we had come up with some good stuff, mostly revolving around text-based messaging for communication with the system to ensure we included people who didn’t have access to a computer or a smartphone. Our idea began to take shape and we gradually got it to a point where we were happy with the features we had come up with.

It was time to code!

This the bit which most excited me, but then I was there as a student developer and the planning stage is never as cool as seeing something being built, no matter how many sticky notes are involved…

For those less technically minded, please look away now.

We decided to go for a Ruby On Rails app because it is my favourite web development framework right now and Florian and Alex (who actually later got stolen by another team – sad times!), the other student developers on our team were willing to give it a go. Lucky me!

We had a shedload of issues setting up our environment on Farouk’s (Our Googler) Macbook Pro due to a load of Snow Leopard Ruby SQlite issues which I had resolved before but couldn’t remember for the life of me how (hence why this blog is now here…)

Like all initial Rails apps it was basic, up and running (as far as models and general underlying structure was concerned) in a matter of minutes. Over next the two days Florian did some cool stuff with Geokit to allow the system to detect the nearest hospital to you (on the web version) and I worked on finding a good Ruby API for sending and receiving text messages – probably a whole blog post in the next few days as it was quite interesting (unless you don’t like that kind of thing, in which case you shouldn’t be reading this bit).

I was personally not looking forward to generating the fixtures and test data for our system, which we would need in order to test everything but luckily our amazing gransnet members pitched in and helped out by typing it all out in the correct format. Yes you heard me, our grannies were CODING. Came up with some brilliant sample data and think they secretly had a lot of fun coming up with pun-influenced doctor and patient names.

We used HAML for our templating language and SASS for a nice programmer-friendly way of generating our CSS files which sped up the design implementation side of things quite nicely.

Code haters, you can read again now, back to pictures and non-geek friendly things…

We called it a night at 10pm (/got kicked out), but me and Florian met up again back at Uni to code late into the night. I had personally prepared in advance:

The next day we met up (my blood-redbull content sitting at dangerous levels..) to mash what we had done code wise with the designs Joe had come up with.

Florain, Me and Joe – our Design Guru

I would try and describe the designs but instead I will just show you what the finished thing looked like:

Cool huh?

To round off the end of the second day, we had a presentation from each team. Ours was prepared by Joe and Kate. Kate did an excellent presentation and I did a quick technical run through, but we had to miss off some of our best features due to time constraints as is often the case.

I noticed this image (see below) in the simpl writeup and thought I should give a shout out to our awesome gransnet members (that’s them in the photo), from those smiles it must have obviously been me and Kate up front! They were true grannies and when they weren’t doing interviews for the filming of the event or coming up with user interface ideas they were helping us out and reminding us to eat “because it doesn’t do you any good on your plate”. You were FAB.

Our awesome gransnet members.

Finally there was the big prize presentation. The main prize went to EZPZ Browser – a simplified stripped down web browser to help people who have never used the internet before to get online. A really interesting concept and had I not been determined to develop something web based I would probably have liked to help out on this. The gransnet prize (voted by gransnet members) was Spotted – an app to share likes, dislikes, photos and experiences relating to disability access. Two very worthy winners!

The winning idea-creators got new Nexus-S phones (Jealous!), with the rest of their team getting ipod shuffles or Android models. Everyone else got free google bits and bobs with quite a few t-shirts given out (Rather pleased with mine and my laptop is sporting a Google transfer sticker this very minute – automatically raises the IQ y’know…).

All in all a pretty awesome weekend! When I was asked on monday what I did at the weekend, I was actually able to say “I sat on my computer for two days living off pizza, beer, curry and coke” without feeling the least bit guilty!

Thanks to all involved and I look forward to seeing you at the next event.

Can’t wait!