Last Saturday was the second Sheffield Refugees Hack Day. Sheffugees is a way for the technology community in Sheffield to react to the refugee crisis, and aims to provide expert-led solutions to specific technological problems faced by both local refugees and asylum seekers, and by the local organizations that try to help them.
The first Sheffugees Hack Day in February saw some two dozen technologists and organization members come together for a Friday evening's planning and a Saturday's technical work. Focus was split early on into two groups:
- a larger team working on a way of marshalling and displaying local resources for organizations: following, as the resource availabilty and suitability must do, a refugee's "journey" through legal, social and geographical spaces
- a smaller team looking into creating an online (eventually to be a native app) needs directory and mapping system, to help Sheffugees themselves navigate both the city and their own path through the "refugee journey".
Progress was made on both projects during Sheffugees #1, but there was clearly still work to do.
On Saturday, then, we returned again to the two separate projects: "Asylum Journey" and "Mapfugees". Once again there was a really healthy turnout, both from technologists and from domain experts: we were especially lucky to have advice on the Friday evening from both a currently failed asylum seeker and also someone from the Refugee Council who (some 14 years ago) successfully gained asylum himself.
Here's how the two projects fared:
- Since the last hack day, data for Asylum Journey had received huge amounts of attention and effort from the local organizations; this, along with the advice and experience of our "refreshed" team of refugee experts, meant that by the end of the Saturday the project was close to their minimal viable product, which was amazing to see!
- On the other hand, Mapfugees had moved rapidly forwards during Sheffugees #1 towards mapping solutions: this work was still valuable, and almost certainly to contribute to the final product, but needed a rethink. Advice from the experts and a rapid brainstorming session about needs, categories and resources (e.g. "legal advice", "find a solicitor" and "one specific local solicitor firm" respectively) meant we began at the top again: focussing on likely user journeys, tackling user needs and beginning a dynamic, Drupal 8-powered system to host everything we've done so far.
While at first glance this looked like a setback for Mapfugees, it could instead be seen as a really useful pivot, away from a solution emphasis that might ultimately not have been as useful to the refugee needing to use it.
In that context, it's clear that the Sheffugees hack days have thus far gained hugely over one-off events in two ways:
- Huge (and enthusiastic) domain-expert attendance. The Friday planning sessions have each been indispensable: being able to retrieve and absorb lots of domain knowledge, and then sleep on it ready for the next day, has given the development teams clear external objectives to focus on.
- Continuity from one hack day to the next. Working with at least some of the same team, on roughly the same project, two hack days in a row: this alone is what made attaining an MVP for the Asylum Journey possible.
I've been slightly sceptical of hack days in the past, for the very reason that a workable MVP often doesn't come out of a single day, and a usable one often doesn't come from a group with no domain experts present. But (as long as we can continue the momentum we've gained so far) the future is looking really exciting for the Sheffugees hack days; here's hoping we can leverage our technology expertise to help improve people's lives.