Impact48 hack weekend

I was glad to participate in the second Impact48 weekend a few days ago, which took place in the opulent Attacat offices on George Street.

In addition to enjoying fine views of the castle and agreeable cake, we sought to employ our collective web related skills to the development of useful new online applications for the Edinburgh Cyrenians.

Impact48 participants reviewing the weekend's work

I heard of the weekend through my friend and Impact48 organiser Barry O'Kane. I was unable to make the first, back in March, so was pleased to be able to help out this time.

I'm glad to report it was a successful weekend. There were a dozen or so volunteers, with skills in web design, development, copywriting and marketing, who together were able, within 48 hours to meet two of the possible challenges set by the Cyrenians at the outset of the weekend.

We organised into two groups, one working on a significant set of improvements to the Cyrenians' existing websites, the other on a prototype for a new recycling website 'Give in Kind': a sort of Freecycle tailored to the needs of the people helped by the charity.

I was part of the latter, working alongside digital designer Scott Burns, developers Jeff Chang and Ricardo Honorato, and social marketing consultant Jennifer Tough.

Give in Kind icons designed by Scott

I sat flanked by Scott and Jeff for much of the weekend, and was fascinated by the speed with which Scott developed some very useful designs for the new site. I've done a fair amount of design over the years, but mainly with Photoshop. Scott's facility with Illustrator was quite remarkable: designs for a very good looking vector-based site were worked up in less than a day. Jeff is very modest, but is clearly something of an unassuming genius: he programmed a framework for a fully functional recycling site within two days, going - I hear - more or less without sleep during the Saturday night to get things done. I was glad that I was able to fit into the picture somewhere, translating Scott's designs into HTML and CSS, and integrating that with Jeff's Ruby on Rails code.

I volunteered because I very much admire the work of the Cyrenians, and, after many years of self-employment, was curious to see how I would fit into a close team working environment. I've collaborated on plenty of projects but usually remotely.

I found to my relief that I rather enjoyed working at close quarters with others. We were able to sort out clearly defined roles from the outset, and trust in each others' expertise. As a freelancer I have to know a bit about all aspects of the web development process but - for me - this weekend was a vivid illustration of just how specialised the various elements of web development have become, and the necessity of finding an aspect of the design and development process to specialise in. Working on my own I haven't quite appreciated that with such force.

I've done a bit of programming but the stuff Jeff and Ricardo worked on was several stratospheres beyond anything I'm capable of, or indeed aspire to. I could relate much more to what Scott was doing, and watching him has given me an added sense of urgency to start getting to grips properly with Illustrator. I've been a Photoshop obsessive for many years, but the line-based designs Illustrator facilitates are much closer to contemporary trends within digital design for flat interfaces.

I have to admit that my commitment to web design and development has been wavering this year: I'm tired and it's getting so very complicated. If I'm going to stay in this field I think it's going to have to be as a designer: I'm more than happy to leave the coding to others. Time then for me to get down to some serious design work, even if just on personal projects.

Let me conclude this little review with a thank you to all who made it possible: Barry and the other Impact48 organisers; the Cyrenians for setting interesting challenges and for their help during the weekend; Attacat for hosting; and of course my fellow volunteers.

Please see the Impact48 blog for a full review of the weekend. The blog also includes a guest post I did in the run up to the weekend, a look at the promise and limits of civic hacking projects such as this one.

View from Attacat