Good For Nothing Colchester – November 2013

Last Friday and Saturday I had the pleasure of getting involved with the Colchester branch of Good For Nothing, a scheme which aims to get people coming together and using their skills to help local causes. In their words, “Smart folk collaborating and experimenting to solve stuff that matters”.

We met on the Friday evening to kick off a ’24 hour gig’ – a hackathon over the Friday night and Saturday daytime to help three local causes with everything from websites to social media to posters. On the Friday we came to hear introductions to the causes, and to get a brief from their representatives. Everyone then self-organised and declared the areas that they felt they could help with, before some local ales were consumed and everyone eventually went home.

GFNCol poster

On the Saturday we kicked off at 9:30 with tea (kindly donated by Tea Pigs) and coffee, and gathered into groups for each project. What I loved was at this stage we had no idea who would or wouldn’t be turning up, who would be choosing to start in which group (you could be interested in multiples and switch), and what skills we’d end up with.

The cause

My cause was The April Centre, a local homeless charity who work across Colchester, Clacton, and Chelmsford who needed a website as well as some help with a strategy to drive donations. For the April Centre, £10 is enough to feed 40 people so the price of a website was understandably something that they found very hard to justify. We spent the first morning sprint grilling their representative Aiden about everything they want to achieve, what they’re doing online at the moment, content and what they could manage, to logos, and much more. We jotted it all down into what became a mind-map, and found that this naturally grouped into some themes in terms of content. At this point we started discussing delivery – we only had a few hours, and wanted to give them something tangible that they could use as a starting point rather than a series of unfinished areas of exploration. I had initially heard them talk about wanting a means to report a homeless person, and had visions of geolocation and really cool interfaces instead of the current printed forms, but it became apparent that with a small team and not much time we needed to get a lot more basic.

Our group at GFNCol

The plans


The end result

We ended up with a simple, responsive one-page site (sorry, SEO folks) using Bootstrap (sorry, bloatedwebsitesthatalllookthesame folks) in order to get something done rapidly. We’d talked about introducing a basic CMS, or even using The April Centre’s existing Facebook content as the ‘CMS’ and pulling it in through the Facebook API, but decided to focus on the front-end as MVP. Thankfully amongst our more technical group we had Dave, who created some initial wireframes and content structure, then mocked us up some great designs, including a re-cut out of the logo as we had no source assets. We then managed to take these and within a few hours created a working site with content including about the centre, how they can help, how they need people to help them, resources, and contact information. It wasn’t exactly pixel-perfect by any means and didn’t have a great deal of functionality, but what was great was that the Centre came away with something that they could use as a starting point, from starting the day with nothing. I somehow managed to end up doing most of the dev work, which was really fun for me, but it was also great when Oli jumped in and we had a little team. Despite the weirdest Git issues i’ve ever seen, and the eventual abandonment of ‘ShitHub’, we got everything in a place whether we, and others could evolve it after the day itself. At the end of the day everyone presented back what they’d done, and it was great to see the amount of progress that had been made by the various teams in such a small amount of time.

GFNCol Show and Tell

We were all really keen for the project not to end with the final show and tell, and as such one of our team, Mark, worked hard all day to provide what was essentially consultancy to the client, and to put together a roadmap of how we pictured their online presence evolving. There were a number of tasks that couldn’t be done on the day, and sadly one of these was that we couldn’t put the site live. It transpired that The April Centre had actually been locked out of their hosting/domain control panels due to problems with them not having a credit card, but Mark is currently working with them to help sort this out.

There are some great things happening in Colchester at the moment, with Colchester Digital and the Hackspace amongst them, but sadly I’m usually on a train when people are meeting. The GFN gig was an absolute pleasure to be involved with, and I met some brilliant very smart local people.

My coding at work is much less frequent nowadays, and when I do get to do stuff it’s proof of concepts rather than an end to end delivery, so it was really nice to be able to direct my brain at something different for once. It was also very rewarding to get involved with people who really needed and wanted a website, and were prepared to sit with us all day just to be on hand. It struck a chord, as sometimes I think we all get a bit too caught up with the fact that this is our job, whether to make, or to commission this endless stream of digital output, and it’s important to step back from the merry-go-round of briefs and budgets and meetings and task lists and user stories to realise that sometimes, it’s a lot more simple than that. Whether we like it or not, websites are a part of life nowadays, part of who we are, but their creation won’t or can’t always go through the proper channels for whatever reason. If you can help someone with that, whether it’d dedicating time to a cause, or even helping someone to learn so that they can start doing things themselves, then it’s a pretty great thing. This isn’t about working for free, or people not appreciating the value, as I can assure you that everyone was extremely grateful that they had some very smart people on their teams. It’s more that if you’re that way inclined, it’s cool to find someone who you can help with your hacking around.

Current hosting issues permitting I’m hoping to have a link to the new site shortly, but until then you can go to http://www.facebook.som/theaprilcentre or if you want more information on The April Centre.

If you’re interested in attending a Good For Nothing meet, or starting up a local chapter, check out the website:

There was a great write up on Storify here:

(Window photo courtesy of Mark Sta Ana)