What do you expect to happen when you shut 25 teens in a room for an entire rainy Saturday? I wasn’t sure when I arrived at Skokie Public Library at 9:00am on May 30 for their first ever Community Appathon, even though I’d attended several planning meetings. The event was inspired by the National Day of Civic Hacking and spurred into being by a library patron (Maker Mom Kim Moldofsky) and her teenage son. A skilled coder, he’d attended an adult-oriented hackathon and found that a 36-hour event doesn’t mix well with curfew. The goal of the appathon was to gather teens interested in developing, designing, and civic service to prototype apps to meet the community’s needs.
The event ran from 9:00am to (slightly after) 6:00pm. We began the day with a State of Skokie talk that addressed many of the issues highlighted at a recent series of town hall meetings, followed by a brainstorming session to develop ideas to address those issues. Highlighted issues include safety, connectivity, diversity, environmental sustainability, the difficulty in finding information about local events, the need for an image makeover, and a need to be more pedestrian friendly. The teens then broke out into teams of five to create their apps. Three library staff and Kim acted as facilitators throughout the day: keeping everyone on schedule, serving food (bagels, fruit, pizza, popcorn and cookies), and offering assistance as needed. At the end of the day, each team presented their app to the whole group. All the teens (plus a last-minute group of teen volunteers) voted on the best one.
I came in with very little knowledge of coding. I’ve played with programs Scratch and App Inventor and prototyping software Fluid Ui enough to be able to talk about them. The self-identified teen coders were way beyond App Inventor. A few of the teens knew less than I did, but had design or other relevant skills. Skokie Public Library’s webmaster was on hand to mentor them with coding issues, and several advanced teens helped the others periodically throughout the day, as well. SPL’s teen librarian introduced teens to the art of the elevator pitch to help with their final presentations. My roles were to conduct a brief presentation on team selection, assist with user testing and design questions, and find answers to the inevitable, “Do you have an extension cord?” type questions.
The turnout, 25 teens, made the event a success. Coverage in the local paper may have boosted participation. Promotion at the local schools and word of mouth most definitely did. We were also able to entice them by offering a treasure trove of donated prizes. Local restaurants like Meatheads and tech companies like GitHub and Lenovo were eager to participate. Google even donated two chromebooks. One was awarded to the MVP of the day, as chosen by the teens, and the other was put into a random drawing along with the stickers, magnets, USB extenders, and other goodies. Each team also received a set of five matching prizes, so that no one went home empty-handed.
Participants were highly engaged and seemed to enjoy themselves. They worked independently of the staff for much of the day. One group took the initiative to send some of its members out into the community to talk with nearby business owners to gauge their interest and get their feedback on their app. In the end, all five teams completed working prototypes of their apps.
A few basic supplies were necessary to keep the program running. While most teens brought their own computers, we had several on hand for those that may not have their own. All of them ended up getting used. In addition to laptops, we also made sure to have plenty of power strips and extension cords. These also all got used as the teens’ laptop batteries began to fade. For brainstorming and planning we had lots of pens, post-its, poster pads and markers. Various apple and android devices were on-hand for user testing, but didn’t get used.
We identified a few areas to improve for future appathons. Several groups focused on similar problems like connectivity, image and finding information about local events, while no one worked on diversity, environmental sustainability, safety or pedestrian-friendliness. To remedy this, we might have participants vote on the top issues or ideas, and then form groups based on the top 5. Since the event also ended up running over its allotted time, it might work to extend it through dinner (more pizza!) or limit presentations to just 1 or 2 minutes, then time them to make sure they don’t run long.