Sheffugees

This weekend I attended a “Sheffield refugee hackathon” organised by the folks at Yoomee. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, having never been to a hackathon before, and being unsure how well the fairly specific set of application-development skills I’ve been using over the last few years would generalise to building something that could be of benefit to refugees and asylum-seekers, but it was a great experience and I’m really looking forward to the next one (which should be happening in around 6 weeks time).

I’d been chatting to Andy at Yoomee since last autumn about the possibility of getting some Sheffield techies together as a force for good but, despite being publicly enthusiastic about the idea, I had visions of just 3 or 4 people turning up and the event being a bit ineffective. In the end we had 20-25 people over the course of the two days, and it feels like we got some really valuable work underway, with the potential to improve people’s lives.

We started off on Friday evening with a couple of hours’ round-table discussion of approximately 10 potential projects, all of which had been suggested by public sector and third sector organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees. Some of the people from these organisations were present to explain the projects in more detail, and it was great working throughout the weekend with people from Sheffield Council and local volunteers, who brought a huge amount of insight and domain knowledge which complemented the technical skills the rest of us brought to the table.

We settled on two projects:

  • A mobile-first map-centric website (dubbed “mapfugee”) for use by asylum seekers on arrival in Sheffield. This will help them locate useful places around the city – from Post Offices to health centres to places of worship, even helping them to find the way back to their place of residence in Sheffield (harder than you think when you’ve just been dropped off in a strange city in a strange country), using an easy-to-understand interface.
  • A website (“the asylum journey”) aimed at the public and third-sector bodies who work with asylum seekers, highlighting the services they need to access at all the stages of the asylum seeker’s stay, up to and past the point where they are approved or denied refugee status.

On Saturday, we returned and started building these solutions. I was on the team tackling the latter project, and we split further into two groups, one of which took the existing “asylum journey” data from a large Word document and used it to populate a Trello board, and the other (my group) designed and started building a website which would take that data from Trello and enrich it with additional fields and interface options.

By 4:30pm Saturday when we downed tools, we did not have a great deal of website to show for our work, but we had achieved a lot in terms of planning, designing and putting in place the project tools which would allow us all to disperse and continue work remotely. In the meantime, the unwieldy edit-and-email Word document was well on the way to being replaced by a much more flexible and easily-edited Trello board.

Wireframe for "the asylum journey" website, by Martsky
Wireframe for “the asylum journey” website, by Martsky

As I mentioned, this was my first Hackathon. I have no idea how representative it is of a “usual” hackathon, if there is such a thing. Our hours were relatively short (a couple of hours on Friday night, plus 10-5 on Saturday), there were no challenges, competitions or prizes, and we consumed no pizza and precious little beer. But it was a great environment to collaborate in, and I felt like I learned some really useful new technical skills as well as contributing to the eventual solution. It also reminded me that some 13 or 14 years ago I worked with Holler on a website for the Refugee Council, so it was nice to be able to return to working in the same general area.

The weekend also spawned a name for our collective effort – Sheffugees – and a corresponding website, which collects some of the output of the hackathon as well as providing a place where you can sign up to express your interest. There will soon be a link there to a Doodle poll, so that we can choose the date of the next event.

Update: Andy has also written a blog post about the weekend, complete with Doodle poll.