To be honest, I didn’t know what a hackathon even was when I first heard about it. I have been a part of the frontline cadre of CSC staff my whole career, and I am certainly no computer expert. I’m also pretty sure that I’m not alone in not knowing what a hackathon or app challenge is. Like me, you probably have a good idea of what any good smartphone app should do, but wouldn’t know the first step toward making that idea into an actual app. So, I was a little hesitant about signing up but I can say that I’m very motivated to help address workplace mental health injuries amongst CSC employees, and more specifically, how we can all help each other because we work in a challenging field. Only we know what it’s like. The more I heard about the app challenge and began to understand how it was going to work, I knew it was something that I wanted to try.
I asked around and was able to recruit a few of my colleagues in the Atlantic Region: Andrew DeShaw, Community Mental Health Social Worker, Paul Murphy, Psychologist, and Cameron Stewart, Correctional Program Officer. Together we have many years of programming and mental health experience, but we knew that we needed an expert base in the area of coding, so we reached out to Mounir Gedeon Senior Project Analyst , Patrick Lajoie, Technical Advisor, IT Security, and Louis-Philippe Quesnel, Manager of Enterprise Architecture. One small challenge was that Patrick, Mounir and Louis-Phillip were based in Ottawa while the rest of us were here in Halifax. But this proved only to be a minor obstacle that we overcame pretty easily through videoconferences, teleconferences, and emails. The key was to keep the lines of communication flowing regularly, but of course the result of having an inter-regional team is that we never met the other half of our team in person. I still want to meet those guys!
Melding minds, opening blinds
The first order of business was to get together, chew on some ideas and concepts, and set the parameters for what we wanted to include in our app. Then we set out to do our research and collect the information we needed to make it a reality. During the two-day portion of the actual challenge, our team’s set-up probably looked a little different from the other teams as we were spread out over five sites and two provinces. Not to mention that most of us were still facilitating programs and working with offenders as part of our regular jobs. Working on the app was something that was done on the side of our desks. Not ideal, but that’s how it had to work for us.
Apart from using videoconference, teleconference, and email as resources, we also used SharePoint. That was cool. Once we knew what we wanted our app to look like, our three team members at NHQ were able to transform our vision into a real app. It was pretty surreal to see all of our ideas come to life; by the end of the two days, we had an actual working app!
Shortly after the submission deadline, we were able to see what the other eight teams had developed. It was pretty awesome to see all of the effort and creativity that was put into the different apps. It was also surprising how a few of the themes and mechanisms were strikingly similar. Great minds think alike!
When it came to presenting to the judges in Ottawa about a week later, it felt like we were preparing for the Dragon’s Den TV show. The part of our team that works at NHQ were there in person, and they were able to demonstrate the app while those of us in the Atlantic Region were pitching the concept to the judges over the phone, using WebEx. Our team was happy with our pitch and proud of the app we were able to design over the two-day intensive period.
We were able to hear some of the other presentations as well. It was awesome to hear other CSC colleagues speaking with conviction about mental health and the different ways that our mental wellness can be maintained and improved. This stuff isn’t taboo to talk about anymore, which felt liberating.
The pay-off: Hackathon Stardom and Infamy! *ahem* Building something that will help us all
A couple of weeks after our presentation, we were all invited to a modest awards ceremony that took place in the Commissioner’s boardroom in Ottawa. We called in via videoconference (as did many other teams) and after a short summary of what had happened to date, the Commissioner announced our team as the winner. So yeah, that was kind of crazy! It was truly a surprise, and I think we were caught a little off guard. Commissioner Don Head presented the trophy to Louis-Philippe Quesnel and Mounir Gedeon. The Atlantic Region members participated via videoconference.
Also during the awards ceremony, Simon Bonk, the head of Information Management Services at CSC, spoke about next steps. He mentioned that some of the app submissions that didn’t win had some very unique and worthy aspects to them, and that his team would work with all of us to ensure that the best pieces of each app submission would be incorporated into the final app. What a good idea! I really liked some parts of the other submissions (i.e. “why didn’t I think of that?”), and incorporating those ideas into the final app is an honest way to ensure that we come up with the best end product. It’s also a demonstration to the other teams that all the effort they put into their ideas won’t be lost.
To tell you the truth, I believe we’re all winners. Sounds kind of cliché I know, but it rang true with me when the Commissioner said that one of the main goals of the app challenge was “to normalize discussions around mental health.” This was a friendly competition and I think we’ve helped to continue the conversation and move the yardstick forward a bit.
One last note to say: This was a lot of fun and I’m confident the app is going to be a success. For those reasons, I suspect there’ll probably be another hackathon on a different initiative in the future. So I wanted to end this piece by encouraging you to consider participating in the next one (whenever that may take place). Don’t let the fact that you may not know how to write code or be very ‘tech savvy’ deter you; if that was the case then I wouldn’t have participated in this great event, either. And now I have the trophy!
A/Parole Officer Supervisor
Carlton Centre Annex
Halifax, Nova Scotia