Benetech Team Hacks for Good

By Benetech, posted on

As a nonprofit tech company, we at Benetech believe that using an agile approach to software development (methods based on iterative and incremental development) is the best way to create technology that meets the needs of our users. We prototype, gather feedback and prototype some more.

In that spirit of promoting collaboration and flexibility—two of the Seven Benetech Truths—members of our Engineering/ Product/ Project Management / Design teams recently participated in a hack day, where they came up with some valuable proof of concepts for our Human Rights and Global Literacy initiatives and experimented with microcontrollers (mini computers or “computers on a single chip”). It was a fun, productive day for our team and I’d like to share with you today some of our highlights and takeaways from it.

Let’s start with a taste of what our folks worked on. Our Human Rights team members developed a proof of concept for a user friendly, web-based, drag-and-drop WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) form-builder for Martus, our open source software tool for human rights documentation. The addition of a WYSIWYG will greatly improve Martus user experience and has long been a high priority request from our users. Not only did our team learn some new possibilities for a form builder, but we also explored application code (JavaFX) that we are planning to utilize in upcoming versions of Martus to shorten development time and improve user interface, among other benefits.

Our Global Literacy folks also had a great deal of fun AND progress towards a real-world challenge in the Bookshare user experience, namely, how to proactively provide book recommendations to members. The team therefore built a prototype for recommending Bookshare titles based on user behavior, such as one’s book downloads or category search. They created a product packaging “promo” and produced a “commercial” promoting “Read More” (TM).

Finally, some employees wanted to explore how software and microcontrollers could be combined to create an electromechanical braille sign to indicate to our co-workers with visual impairments whether a conference room was available without having to knock on the door. We were able to create a working prototype that rotated a small sign with braille labels. The prototype worked by polling our Microsoft Exchange servers for conference room availability and rotating the sign accordingly.

We would love to do more of these hack days and explore new methodologies, project ideas and product features. In fact, the flexibility to dive into new challenges and identify possible solutions is a core principle of our recently launched Benetech Labs. With the Labs, we want to experiment early and often so that, ultimately, we can launch successful tools that help millions of people.

Granted, hack days are no panacea for solving the world’s problems. Did we complete the proof of concepts we worked on? Of course not. But did we make great progress on various fronts and are we using what we learned to design our way forward? YES!

Among our takeaways are also ideas for maximizing the outcomes of future hack days. For instance, our recent experience reinforced one of the fundamental rules of hack days: the more you can prepare in advance, the more efficient you can be during the event itself