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Photo credit: Danny Lucio

TL;DR: My group of project champions and a couple of hackers got an Honorable Mention, Most Sustainable award!


Last weekend, I decided to attend a hackathon. ATXHack4Change is a hackathon addressing civic problems (mostly in Austin, TX). It’s a small hackathon though it’s getting bigger and bigger each year. Everyone, even those who don’t know how to code can join. I learned a lot from participating and I think it’s a good hackathon for newbies like me.

The event started on a Friday night and ended on Sunday. I got to see the Mayor of Austin, Mayor Adler, in the flesh. I only see him on TV. In fact, I was sitting next to him before the ceremonies on Friday started. I should have taken a selfie with him. But I resisted.

Picking a group to hack with

The first order of the event was picking a group and that wasn’t easy. Projects already exist and hackers only need to pick one. And despite fact that groups did their pitches during the starting ceremonies, it was still not easy picking a group/project. Really, it doesn’t matter what I pick, is what I thought.

After the project pitches was the mixer where hackers can talk to the project champions and those who were already with a group. As an introvert, I didn’t like the setup, however. People can barely hear each other talk. After a talking to a couple of groups, I was done! I thought I would just read the projects online. But then, talking to the groups would still be helpful. The kind of projects really didn’t matter, I think. They were all good. I think what matters is if I can build rapport with the group members.

The one I struck a good conversation with was the Ozone Heroes, particularly, the one and only hacker that was there. I found him easy to talk to and not intimidating. Also, the project champions for the group were a group of really nice ladies, headed by the director of the Clean Air Force of Central Texas, Sarah Holland. It appeared that the group didn’t have any code to start with at all. No one among the project champions knew how to code, but their project appealed to me. Their group advocates for mitigation of ozone pollution in the city of Austin.

I also got to talk to another group, socialgood.us, which already has a starting code. But I was attracted to this group because data visualization was part of their objectives. Also, the lady I talked to was also nice. I was actually ready to join this group. But then…I changed my mind the next day.

The next day, Saturday, was the actual start of hackathon, and when you decide on which group to work with. I decided to join the Ozone Heroes. As a chemist, I can relate with environmental issues and I can certainly understand what ozone is. But ozone pollution is actually new to me. I knew that there is an ozone layer in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) and that is good, protecting us from harmful UV rays. But I found that ozone in the atmosphere where we live (the trophosphere) is produced and is not good (see figure below for relative positions of these in the atmosphere).

Wikimedia Commons

Starting to hack

We started hacking by getting to know the project. The project champions explained to us what they wanted in the app they want to create, which is an app that can tell the ozone forecast for the day and the next day, and has a game that calculate the ozone that a user generates based on his/her activities. They also wanted to put the some tips for users on how to decrease their ozone footprint. These were defined as the minimum viable product for now. The group actually wanted a mobile app. But we hackers only were comfortable with a desktop-based app (none of us knew how to use React Native or something else that can create a mobile app). That is a possibility in the future.

With Sarah Holland, the Director for Clean Air Force of Central Texas Photo credit: Danny Lucio

Hacking away

Starting to hack was a little uneasy. First, there was only two of us. How in the world will we ever be able to do this? Both of us were not professionals. I had my doubts until the middle of the day, when it became clear there will be only the two of us. But we stuck to it to the end of the day.

We decided to use React. Matthew, the other hacker, said he hasn’t used React much, but I still wonder why he agreed to do it the React way. He proceeded to use create-react-app, which I am not used to using. He then started to create the game, while I decided to develop our file structure. Our first hurdle was actually putting in the ozone forecast. This involved using an API for fetching data from AirNow.gov. We eventually came across a CORS problem in our pursuit. I will talk about how we overcame this hurdle in another post. But this took most of the time in creating the app. Matthew single-handedly took on the game.

Me and Matthew Myers hacking away Photo credit: Danny Lucio

Happy ending sprinkled with suspense

Among the other challenges we faced was GitHub collaboration and technical difficulties towards the end. For some reason, towards the end, Matthew almost lost all his files. Good thing we had GitHub. But we were able to deploy on Heroku on the last hour of hacking! On to the presentations! This was no sweat thanks to the project champions from Clean Air Force.

To the least of our expectations, we got one Honorable Mention, the Most Sustainable! I wasn’t actually present when this was awarded as I had to run early. But I was so stoked to find out! It was a really great experience!