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Hackanooga brings code ninjas and community builders together
The closer you look at Chattanooga’s tech-entrepreneurial ecosystem, the more intertwined the pieces become. Which is actually just like a real ecosystem, in which multiple species depend on each other’s existence in a fabulously intricate web, sometimes eating each other or finding life after death as organic fertilizer, sometimes subtly making life possible for another species just by going about their lives.
When these threads of connection are teased into a story, it sounds like a Rube Goldberg device—a cartoon contraption where something simple starts an absurd chain reaction of improbable mechanical events—but in practice it all just fits into place.
Which brings us to Hackanooga, a weekend marathon happening May 31-June 1 that will deploy a few dozen of Chattanooga’s finest hackers, supported by an infrastructure of caffeine, snacks, yoga, chair massages and—oh, yeah—Chattanooga’s Gig Internet to develop educational and workforce development software projects.
The first Hackanooga in 2012 was met with a few cries of—I’m paraphrasing—”Hackers here? In River City? Are our passwords safe?” But this hackathon is civic hacking: geeks with wicked skilz who do this stuff for a legal living giving up a weekend to help create community projects.
“My favorite definition of a hackathon is from an article entitled ‘WTF is a Hackathon?’ by David Fontenot,” says Kelly McCarthy, of Easy Designs, Hackanooga’s presenting sponsor. “Basically a hackathon is an event where ‘people come together and use technology to transform ideas into reality,’ which I wish I would’ve thought of because it’s beautiful and broad enough to cover nearly every hackathon, including Hackanooga.”
After 2012, Hackanooga skipped a year, and Open Chattanooga organized a hackathon for 2013’s first National Day of Civic Hacking. Now Hackanooga and Open Chattanooga have joined forces. This year’s Hackanooga—presented by Easy Designs in partnership with the Enterprise Center, Open Chattanooga and Mozilla—is the coordinating point for a crazy quilt of projects.
Organizers have positioned Hackanooga to coordinate with 48 Hour Launch—CoLab’s business plan hackathon held last March, which also focused on education and workforce development—and the Public Education Foundation’s Teacherpreneur program, an idea incubator for teachers that has begun brainstorming in preparation for its own 48-hour hackathon in August.
“We set it up so some of the folks who were at 48 Hour Launch can continue their work at Hackanooga and potentially gain more support, gain more folks to work on things,” says McCarthy. “And if they didn’t apply for the first round of the Mozilla grant, they can apply for the second round, which is shortly after.”
Hackanooga also dovetails with the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund, a $90,000 seed fund to support pilot projects that make use of gigabit technology. Mozilla, the company responsible for the Firefox web browser, supported the first Hackanooga through a similar nationwide funding competition. Several Hackanooga projects applied for that grant, and two—engage3D and Big Blue button—received funding.
This edition of Hackanooga occurs in the middle of a new funding competition focused exclusively on Chattanooga and Kansas City, the two American cities with gigabit Internet. The first round of grants was awarded in April, and Mozilla is accepting applications for a second round that will be announced in July.
“Our goal is to maximize the impact of our collective efforts to benefit Chattanooga’s students and workforce,” says McCarthy. “If Hackanooga can supply the environment (and caffeine) that fuels even one imaginative team to positively impact our community, then we’ve accomplished something amazing.”
McCarthy expects teams from both 48 Hour Launch and the Teacherpreneur program, but won’t know for sure who will be there until they show up. Participants may have a lot of development work already under their belts, or they may be starting from scratch.
“We literally had some teams at the last event—and I expect that we’ll have it this year as well—that started with one person with an idea who had no code, no nothing, and needed help, knowledge, data sets,” says McCarthy.
Hackanooga began, says McCarthy, as a response to Chattanooga’s profusion of business-building events, like 48 Hour Launch, Will This Float?, Gig Tank and others. Participating in those events, she saw a need for something focused more on making “real-world functional things” rather than developing a business plan.
“Some people, that’s just not really their thing,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I want to build something just for the good of the community. I don’t want to have a company, I don’t want to make it into a business.’”
But don’t make the mistake of thinking Hackanooga is all about writing software code, she says.
“You don’t have to know how to code,” she says. “The best hackathons are when all these different people from different areas with different skill sets come together and work on these projects.”
Hackanooga’s demo presentation of the weekend’s work on Sunday, June 1 is open to the public. For more information or to register as a participant (by May 23), visit hackanooga.com.