Innovating with purpose

R Systems Hackathon to Deliver Volunteer Allocation App for 'Ajungem Mari' NGO

R Systems organized an internal hackathon to deliver a digital solution to help “Ajungem Mari” – a Romanian non-profit organization that helps less fortunate children get access to education.

Our connection to Ajungem Mari goes back a while, as we’ve supported the organization’s activities and projects over the years. This time our collaboration took a slightly different direction when the organization shared with us their need for an application that would improve one of their core processes – the allocation of volunteers to children in need. 

Emilia Mocan, Program Manager with Ajungem Mari, explains: “Allocating volunteers is one of our most complex processes, especially because it was previously done manually. We have over 1000 volunteers, and we must keep track of many factors in the allocation process: volunteers’ location, the youngsters’ and volunteers’ schedules, as well as the type of activities our volunteers are able to provide. A digital application would save us tremendous time in matching the children with the right volunteers and allowing their activities to start as soon as possible.”

While CSR activities have always been close to our hearts, this mission in particular was also close to what we do best: put digital technology to work for the greater good and innovate with purpose. What followed was the organizing of an internal hackathon which turned into an international competition including our colleagues from Romania and Poland.

After the development period and a healthy code battle between the teams, a winner was chosen. Hackuna Matata  – as is the name of the winning team – delivered an application that was rated for user-friendliness, complexity, and readiness to tackle the needs of the NGO.

Joining Emilia in sharing the insides of this collaboration and what it meant both for the people that will get to benefit from it and for those developing it are Cristi and Vlad– two members of the winning team.

But first, let’s start with the tech talk because we know you’re here for that as well:

  • The application is a microservice built using Python and Flask as the underlying web framework.
  • For the frontend side, the team resorted to simple HTML using Flask’s own templating engine plus the Semantic UI framework for styling and just a sprinkle of custom CSS and jQuery. 
  • SQLite was the database of choice, as it can be deployed and used anywhere, while packaging-wise, everything was containerized and deployed with a single Docker file.

1. Digital solutions for meaningful experiences

Asked how he would describe this experience, Cristi starts by saying it was “a very pleasant and interesting one. The competitive side was what attracted and motivated me at first, but also the practical applicability of this app, especially being developed for a charitable purpose.”

On that same note, Vlad added that “One of the most important motivating factors to continue working on this project, delivering something meaningful and useful, was not the fact that this was a hackathon but rather the fact that we had an opportunity to help those children. And if I didn’t say it enough during the project, I want to say this again: I thank my colleagues for being involved in this and for making this experience matter, and I was proud to fight alongside them.”

Initially, I imagined the whole process as a sort of team-building and internal competition simultaneously but we ended up competing with another team of colleagues from Poland, turning this into an international championship,” says Cristi.  

2. Overcoming challenges is easier if there’s a purpose to turn to

Of course, this whole experience was not free of challenges. After all, does code ever run on the first try? Well, Vlad seems to have had some luck, as you’re about to read a little further down.

Because the project also had a charitable side to it, that made it much easier and more motivating for me to go through the challenges. In the end, what kept us motivated was simply the fact that we got to help the kids,” says Vlad.

Asked to talk a bit about these challenges, Cristi remembers, “In true hackathon spirit, we wanted to develop something but also learn something new, which is why we used technologies we were not familiar with. One example is Python, which we previously only used with limited applicability and small scripts. In this instance, we had to develop a full web app using it. Another challenge was precisely the scope of the app – a web application – which again was not something very familiar to us as a team. The final challenge was time availability for a new project on top of our regular tasks.

While all four developers have worked together before, meaning they (thought they) knew what to expect and were accustomed to testing each other’s work, we know what happens when you put a bunch of capable, innovative, and creative minds in one room – numerous great ideas are born, but some are, naturally, in conflict. “5 minutes after we started, we were under the impression that the team was going to split in half because we had different views. But we managed to find common ground by reasoning and coming up with arguments to support our views. Obviously, we took it all into consideration and chose the solutions that had the best outcome for the project, and we hope to have delivered exactly what the team at Ajungem Mari needs”, says Vlad.

This hackathon was also proof that miracles do happen, especially for Vlad’s nocturnal coding adventures: “Another interesting thing I took from this experience is that, sometimes, what you’re coding late at night actually ends up working when you test it the next day. It surprised me a lot in a good way.” [The editor dares to call this good karma at its finest.]

3. All ends well when there’s a smile on people’s faces

Asked if they would sign up for a similar challenge again, both developers agreed:

All in all, the hackathon was an awesome experience! You’re giving your time to a greater purpose; plus, I see it as an intellectual challenge”, says Vlad.  

Yes, I would. Now that everyone knows about this experience, I hope R Systems will continue to organize more. You’ll have to deal with an intellectual challenge that is satisfying to solve, and there’s also a very satisfying competitive edge to this challenge, besides doing a good deed. What I would tell people that don’t know whether to get involved or not, is to just do it!” ends Cristi.  

As for those benefiting from this, Emilia and the team at Ajungem Mari were happy to share how it all felt from the other side of the finish line:

I was very happy to see a lot of openness from the people that got involved. They were very dedicated, listened to our needs, and found, or rather created from scratch, the proper solution that fits these needs. Our communication was very open, with constructive feedback going back and forth. I have lots of appreciation for the work they have done because I know it was not an easy task, and I can imagine how much effort they had to put into this.”

And, when it comes to how we can keep using the gift of technology to give back to society, Emilia thinks “there are many NGOs that work with a large number of volunteers. I believe this app has fantastic potential and would be very helpful for them as well.

Curious to hear more from Emilia’s perspective? We’re leaving you with her full testimonial below:

Bottom Line

Finding purpose in work is critical to everyone’s success and well-being – employees and employers alike. It is a way to ensure you are inspired to innovate and create as an individual, but it can also be a tremendous way in which businesses can motivate their employees and ultimately move the organization ahead. 

Because who doesn’t find their role more fulfilling knowing the very thing they are building is being used for the good of the community around us?

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