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Wichita Hackathon Combines 'Latest In Technology With Oldest In Human Wisdom'

The word ‘hack’ might bring to mind a darkened basement, glowing computer screens and stealthy young people hunched in front of them. But KMUW’s Nadya Faulx went to a recent hackathon and has this look at the real world of Wichita hacking – in 24 hours.



The second floor of Century II’s exhibition hall is packed with hackers. There are about 50 of them—mostly men--and they’ll be here for the next 24 hours, fuelled by coffee, Red Bull, and giant cups of soda from QuikTrip.

The civic hacking group Open Wichita put this hackathon together, one of the first events for the city. (And no, this isn’t anything like the 90's movie "Hackers"—there’s no espionage or cyber crime.)

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Seth Etter speaks to attendees of a hackathon earlier this year.

Organizer Seth Etter stands at a lectern, framed by red and blue balloons, and welcomes the group.

“This is amazing," he says. "This is the first time we’ve done something like this, so I know 95 percent of you don’t know what to expect, and neither do I, but that's the beauty in this."

Being computer-savvy isn’t a must to participate in the hackathon, but it does help. What matters here, though, is that the people who show up have a desire to build something that might help make Wichita better.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
"Hackers" stand with their project ideas written on large sheets of paper.

One by one, anyone with an idea for a project goes before the group and makes their pitch: a mobile app targeted toward people who are homeless or low-income; a way to streamline the way people find jobs; an electronic system to report graffiti. As each person speaks, a volunteer quickly jots down the ideas on a large pad of paper, which are then posted on a wall for the other hackers to peruse as they pick which team they'd like to join.

There’s an awkward shuffle as people mill around deciding who they want to work with. It’s a bit like a middle school dance: Team leaders wait anxiously for the other hackers to approach them about their projects.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Jim Rice, whose hackathon idea involved creating mini video games, discusses his project with another attendee.

One of the hackers, a man named Jim Rice, is standing off to the side with his poster-sized sheets of paper taped to the front of his orange shirt. The idea on his paper says “open data for vid games.” He says he's actually a little relieved that more people haven't joined his team.

"When I figure out how to solve a problem, I ask, first of all, 'Can I do it with a game?' And then, not always," he says. "I was just relieved that I didn't have all the good developers say, 'Yeah, I want to make a video game instead of actually build something that somebody needs.'"

Across the room, Robin Jacobs and his five teammates are already spread out around a circular wooden table, deep in their work on a digital replacement for the city's emergency accident reporting plan. Jacobs works for the City of Wichita in the app development group, which is actually where the idea for a mobile accident reporting app originated.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Robin Jacobs works on a digital accident reporting app during the first day of the 24-hour hackathon.

"In times of accidents, your frustration’s really high already. You’re already so amped up, it’d be just so nice to do click-click-click and done," he says.

He says this kind of project is something he and his coworkers have wanted to do for a long time, but they haven’t had the resources for it.

"I think either at least a very good working prototype is possible, if not the full thing, in 24 hours, especially with this talent we’ve got assembled here," he says.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Dwight Roth, right, talks to another hacker who helped Roth build a website for the Wichita Interdisciplinary Neurological Trauma Alliance.

But not everyone here has a tech background. Seventy-two-year-old Dwight Roth taught sociology for 35 years at Hesston College. He came to the hackathon with his teammates to launch WINTA: the Wichita Interdisciplinary Neurological Trauma Alliance.

Basically, Roth says he wants to build a resource for people with neurological disorders or brain injuries. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease three years ago; two of his teammates have traumatic brain injuries.

The team came to the hackathon to build a website, but Roth got another idea, too.

Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Notes and wires cover the table where Roth and his teammates work on the WINTA project.

"One of the things I heard other participants talking about was making apps, and I hadn’t thought about that one. This would be so good to have an app for a person with a neurological disorder, so that if I have Parkinson's, I can push this app, and I need this help," he says. "We want to bring the latest in technology with the oldest in human wisdom and compassion."

Twenty-four hours later, the teams are still here, and they’re getting ready to present their projects to the full group and a panel of judges. Some people have been here all night—others, like Robin Jacobs, managed to go home at for a while, but he says it was still a long day.

"I’d say about a 9 to 10 hour-effort, so far, which honestly doesn’t sound like much compared to the 24 hours completely allotted, but man it felt like a lot of work," he says.

The logo on Wintalliance.org.

Dwight Roth's WINTA group has been here working the whole time on their website for people with neurological disorders. Team member Shannon Hilbert says the final product is exactly what they wanted.

"I couldn’t be more pleased. And the artwork, and the theme, and you should see the video that they’re going to show," she says. "It just blew me away. I’m just speechless."

The team came to the hackathon with an idea. And with the help of some of the other hackers, they turned that into a video and a website--a resource they're going to formally launch in September.


Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.