HackFest 2016: Full Recap


Digging Deep and Growing a Website

Sprout is a recently established enterprise that supports the economic viability of producers in the rapidly developing local foods sector of the economy. With their newly opened facility in Little Falls, Sprout is well positioned to add value not only to the marketing of locally-grown food, but also to incubate micro-enterprise, support public health, and provide educational opportunities.

The team working on potential technologies to more effectively convey the organization’s message started by looking at the information that is currently available on Sprout’s website, and looking at the sites of similar organizations. They began focusing on relatively simple enhancements to the existing website that could yield immediate benefits.

The team helped identify strategies based on the point of view of both partner farmers as well as potential customers. The list of valuable website enhancements included a adopting a theme with responsive design, so that the site would be mobile friendly. Additional recommendations regarding the site’s navigation categories and enhanced video and image content are under consideration.

The team also discussed how the site could be aligned with the organization’s business and marketing plans, and how the website could also support a broader communications plan integrating with their social media presence.

This project is a great example of how hackathons are first and foremost about creative problem solving. Sometimes a challenge requires a newly-created technology solution, and sometimes it simply takes the perspective of outside collaborators with diverse experience. The ability to address multiple improvements to an organization’s primary web presence without initiating a new stand-alone project is exactly the type of contribution that demonstrates the value of an event like the HackFest. Those improvements will provide the underpinnings for future enhancements or products that will be informed by this work.


Looking for a New Model for Getting Timely Information to Students

2010 article in The New York Times talked about young people’s waning interest in email as a platform for communication. There are a number of reasons for this lack of interest in email, but whatever the reason, this reality has left high school officials with a challenge. How might they engage students who are not checking email or other web-based calendars?

A HackFest team that included a Brainerd school district staff member, a high school student, a middle school student, and some HackFest volunteers worked on a solution to this dilemma. The team created the basic design of a platform agnostic administration tool that could push messages to students via Twitter, text messaging, or whatever the student’s preferred platform might be.

The interesting thing about this solution is that it gives students options, not only regarding platform, but also options regarding types of content. For example a student may opt into messages about scholarship opportunities and deadlines, or arts events, but may not opt not to receive messages related to sporting events.

A next step is to gain buy-in from school administration before committing to further work. The fundamental ideas for this project are potential game changers for school districts.



There is no lack of volunteer matching sites on the internet. They operate on a variety of scales, and serve a wide range of causes. Many of these sites, however, are oriented to volunteer opportunities offered by nonprofits or other agencies, and operate under traditional volunteer management models. In other words, if you want to volunteer at a hospital, a school, or at the annual whatever-a-thon, you can pretty easily connect to those opportunities.

But what about smaller service opportunities, like when an elderly resident’s yard needs raking. How might we leverage technology to facilitate the sort of volunteer acts that often originate over a backyard fence conversation, or over coffee at a local café?

Enter Volunteerize. A project proposed for the HackFest that could facilitate the implementation of great ideas from anyone in the community. This website would:

  • Cover a general geographic area/place.
  • Have an uncomplicated user interface.
  • Leverage existing social networks (Facebook, linked in, others).
  • Be easy to sign in to either post an idea/project or to connect with others who have posted an idea.
  • Allow for project pictures to be posted (before, during and after).
  • Not be a substitute or competition with more formal volunteer sites, but complimentary and hopefully linked to such formal sites.
  • Keep a focus on positive informal connections between people/neighbors to make each other’s lives and community better.
  • Include links to project funding tools such as GoFundMe, GoGetFunding, and Kickstarter.

The Volunteerize team created a basic framework for the website, and has identified additional considerations that have yet to be worked out. These include identifying a potential host for, and monitor of the site, crafting a marketing plan, and creating strategies to ensure that the platform is not co-opted for other purposes, not endorsed by the owner.

Work that still needs to be done includes: turning the design model into a working database, completing the design of the user interface, and testing its functions. That’s a good-sized list, but not an impossible task. If fully realized as it has been conceived, Volunteerize can fill a small, but important niche in any community, of resident identified and led volunteer service.


Connecting Young Professionals to the Community

Lakes Ignite is a recently-formed organization that is dedicated to connecting youngprofessionals to a variety of community, and professional networking opportunities. The organization proposed to create a kind of virtual “welcome wagon” to connect people to opportunities based on their interests.

Lakes Ignite’s approach rests on three important assumptions; 1) young Professionals use social media to connect more often than past generations; 2) more community engagement will result through exposure to a diverse set of engagement opportunities; and 3) a concentrated, digital effort will retain more young professionals to the regional community.

The HackFest project has multiple goals:

  • Complementing current regional efforts around economic and workforce development through community engagement;
  • Raising awareness of the wide variety of networking opportunities that the area has to offer for younger workers; and
  • Connecting new (or just disengaged) people with likeminded individuals already established in the community, the type of relationships that help retain skilled workers in the area.

The team working on the Lakes Ignite project created the framework for a useful website that can serve as a central communication hub for the organization. It will complement their existing social media presence by providing features such as:

  • An application submission area for meeting with a member of the group
  • Top 10 Events per month (+ links to other community calendars)
  • A resources page with links to volunteer opportunities, jobs, other networking groups
  • And much more

Lakes Ignite is currently on Facebook and Twitter. With the help of a hard-working HackFest team, they should have an expanded web presence in the near future.


Uncovering Local History

The proposed idea was pretty straightforward. Could we make a mobile app that could support self-guided local history tours? For the history stalkers among us, people who actually read historical markers, there aren’t a lot of resources out there to do this on a local level. The Morrison County Historical Society saw potential value, and agreed to provide some leadership around the effort.

A group of project hackers set out to see how they might create such a resource. They defined the data sets and features they desired. These included things such as exact location, photos, descriptions, type of site, site restrictions, and so on. The team also drilled down on functionality of the desired project, things such as user interface, the ability to create self-defined tours, the ability of users to add or suggest previously unknown sites, and many other features.

Now hackathons are not just about coding. Often they focus considerable time on research, so that nobody sets out to invent a wheel. This team had a clear research agenda:

  • Find other websites and apps that do something similar; and
  • Identify existing public databases containing the desired information fields.

They discovered apps that did some, but not all of what they desired. Others had one feature they liked, but did not otherwise serve all their needs.  Then along came Field Trip, an existing app, from a reliable developer, which does what they needed. The app pulls from over 100 open databases, so a new strategy started to develop around getting local data into the existing databases (sites like HMdb.org, andOpenBuildings.com) from which the app currently pulls data.

Moving forward the plan is to populate the appropriate databases with the county’s sites of historic interest, and begin to market the use of Field Trip to visitors and locals looking for historic sites. There is no reason why this group’s work cannot benefit local historians throughout the state by providing a model for them to follow.