Charity Code Jam

25 January 2012

Over the last couple of years several of my colleagues have been organizing code jam[1] events where developers get together to write software for charitable causes. A good example is a regular code-jam in New York that works on RapidFTR. Chris George, a ThoughtWorker based in New York, helped organize a one-off event in New York in August 2010. The group didn't get as much done on the day as they had hoped, but in a bar afterwards decided to try to get together more regularly. Since then they've been meeting every week. It's a small group, still mostly ThoughtWorkers and friends, with a core of 3-4 people rising to a dozen when we've had a big project in town.[2]. (Chris is happy to have more people join the group, so if you are interested drop him an email.)

Many people have found these events to an enjoyable way to use our skills for purposes that we find rather more fulfilling than many day jobs, and a way both to learn new skills and learn from a different group of people. So I thought I should share our thoughts on how to set one up.

The first thing is to find a suitable effort to contribute to. We look to contribute to projects producing open-source software for NGOs - the open source model fits well for such organizations. The two that we've built up most of a relationship are RapidFTR and OpenMRS. RapidFTR is a system designed to help reunite families after a natural disaster or other calamity. It allows people to quickly input information about either a lost child, or a child found without parents - then provide search facilities to match them up. OpenMRS is an open source medical records system, designed to support various forms of health care delivery work. It's used by many health care groups all over the world (and not just in the developing world).

Like New York, most of our code-jams begin as one-off events, a single evening or all day event. These days we advertise heavily, and hope to get a good sample of local developers to come along and take part. One-off code jams like this don't usually produce much useful software, since they are too short to really accomplish much. But they still have value. Firstly they generate awareness, exposing the local development community both to the specific project and the notion of working on open-source efforts for NGOs. More directly they can be the seed for an regular code jam, so it's useful to put together activities that will encourage getting back together later.

A regular code jam gets together on a schedule, with core of people who come most weeks. Such a group can make some significant contributions to a code base. People come because they get to work on some different technologies, with a different group of co-developers, to an audience that (unlike most open-source projects) isn't just other developers.

To make meaningful progress, you need someone to prepare for each code jam by breaking down work-items into something small enough that people will be able to finish them during the time at the jam. Whatever people may say and hope, they'll rarely work on the project outside code jam hours, and the schedule is too infrequent to want half-done things hanging over. Small tasks allow teams to make perceptible progress each jam - which helps keep motivation high. We like to put these tasks online before each event so people can prepare if they want to, or just get a feel for what we're working on. We also set up a mailing list to keep up regular communication on the jam and support anyone who does contribute outside of the jam.

Our regular code-jams succeed best when the group has a couple of champions who take the lead in organizing the event. It's best to have more than one champion, to cope with the work load and provide some resilience if they are absent for a while.

We try to ensure the development environment is set up to allow people to come in quickly and become productive. Much of this is the same kind of thing that we do on projects anyway to enable continuous integration - make sure that installation and build are automated so people can quickly install the code base and get it working. It's important to mention this in the advertisements for the event - people are often put off from coming due to a concern that they'll never get started due to these issues. Even so, make sure that each event has at least one person who is familiar with the code base and build environment, she can then help others find their way around. Often someone will give a short overview of what the system does and how it works for new people at the start of the jam.

We usually provide food to each event - that's an easy thing for us to do as a corporate contribution. As any XPer knows, sharing food when working is an important part of gelling a team.

So, if the idea of a code-jam appeals to you, why not give it a try? Find a suitable project to contribute to, a group of a few people to act as a core, and spend a few sessions to get things going. (There are developer guides for both OpenMRS and RapidFTR to help you get started if those projects appeal to you.) If you get going on a stable basis - post in a blog somewhere so we see what code-jams are avaialable and learn more about how to get them going.

Further Reading

My colleague Jeff Wishnie has been involved in this world for a long time and explains Why Hackathons Suck (and don’t have to)


1: "Code-jam" is a problematic name for these events. As far as I can determine, the term "code-jam" was originally used for competitive events where programmers would try to best their peers in some programming challenge. The events I describe here are the utter opposite of this, on many levels, but have attracted the same name.

2: When one of the team went down to our Porto Alegre office, he got a group contributing there too.