October 19, 2006

League of Technical Voters codeathon raises visibility

Author: Rod Amis

Silona Bonewald, the founder of the League of Technical Voters, wants to get technical people more engaged in civic processes. She also wants politicians and governmental agencies to appreciate the impact of technology on their activities and the valuable resource technical experts offer them. To help achieve these twin goals, Bonewald organized a codeathon last weekend in Austin, Texas. Thirty open source programmers and more than 100 designers, testers, and others agreed to be locked in for 48 hours to work on a Drupal-based software for non-profits and governmental agencies.

"When I first began describing the project to people," Bonewald says, "it was much like the old proverb about the blind men discovering an elephant. They began complaining that it was too long and skinny, or felt like tree trunks. They could only see the pieces (tail, trunk, and legs) and not the whole of the elephant and what it meant. I quickly realized that what I needed to do was build a baby elephant first, something that would give everyone the bigger picture before creating the full-sized project.

"Because Drupal is already gaining a following and provides many of the basic tools I want to weave together, all we will need to do is expand on those tools and add a few new ones to create the baby elephant.

"Some of the pieces are: social networking, reputation network, blogging, legislative bill tracking and tagging, ranked-pair polling, surveys, and a standards-based calendar with an eye towards accessibility and open formats.

"Because my organization, the League of Technical Voters, has a number of different target users, in the end many of the users themselves will only interact with pieces of the elephant. Senators and their staff, for example, won't be as interested in the bill-tracking features that provide updates to technical people. They will, however, find the ability to request white papers and technical advice useful."

Prior to deciding on the elements the programmers would begin developing, Bonewald spent three months with legislative staffers surveying them for their needs and testing usability features. She conducted more than 60 interviews with Texas legislators and their staffs.

After looking at both Joomla and Plone, Bonewald determined that Drupal was the best environment for the project's needs. She liked that its structure was modular, allowing a diverse group of programmers to address a wide range of features simultaneously.

To get the word out about this event, Bonewald set up a wiki, contacted the local Linux users group, sent out press releases, and put the word out in the Drupal community. She contacted Chris Tom, owner of Austin's Tek Republik, who agreed to provide a facility for the event. Tom has offered free space to local non-profits in the past and believes these kinds of events are important in building the social network of Linux users face to face. They strengthen the community, Tom says.

On scene

Why lock up the programmers? Bonewald says, "I came up with the idea because I used to work in the gaming industry and we would pull two-week-long coding crunches. After that, a weekend didn't seem like much at all. We kept it exciting by taking breaks to have Nerf gun wars and play with juggling pins, and I'm trying to recreate that environment this weekend with regular performances, DJs, and great catered food.

"Of course, I'm a bit older now, so we have crash space with vibrating Tranquiloungers and Lovesac bean bags for everyone to nap on."

Chris Hunter, one of the programmers in attendance, observed on Saturday, "It's better, when you have a codeathon -- or marathon session like this one -- if there's a light atmosphere. Code and play. I liked the fact that they were bringing in clowns, having breaks like today's Ice Cream Anti-Social to keep the mood playful.

"I haven't been here as many hours as a lot of these folks," he said, surveying the quiet room full of people hunched over their laptops. "But I like what's developing. I was not that up to speed on Drupal when I got here. I've worked more with Java and Python. But I like Drupal a lot better than PHP. It's powerful, much more so than PHP as far as I'm concerned."

The event proved an overall success, increasing the visibility of the organization and getting enthusiastic reviews from both organizers and participants. Videoblogs of the final two days are slated to be featured on the League's site. Meanwhile, programmers in Seattle and Canada also took part remotely during the final days of the event. The "baby elephant" had a smooth and joyful delivery with Bonewald announcing on Monday that six modules had been completed. Bonewald is currently working to bring the beta site produced by the event online.

Click Here!