Lessons from the refugee hack day

by Andy Mayer
Posted on 21 April 2016
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A couple of weeks back, Yoomee hosted a second hack day – now going by the name of 'Sheffugees' – that aims to benefit refugees, refugee organisations and asylum seekers in Sheffield. It was only our second event, but we've already learned some great lessons and built some really useful software that has potential to make an impact.

You can read about the first Sheffugees hack day here.

Lesson 1: Include sector experts

It's hugely important to have non-technical experts at your hack day. They have the knowledge to inform and even direct the work done by the more technical attendees. By understanding the individuals and organisations that will use what's being developed, they provide valuable real-world context.

Domain experts also champion the cause with technical attendees. They go on to promote the event and what the group creates with local organisations. Tina Ball from the City of Sanctuary attended the entire Sheffugees hack day. She represented the needs of refugees and asylum seekers and her input was invaluable, despite not being a developer.

Tina put together a presentation to show our progress so far:


The week after the hack day, Tina also presented our progress to the Refugee Forum, a networking and information-sharing group of organisations that work with refugees and asylum seekers.

She reported the following feedback:

It was very well received – everyone was very positive about the projects and their potential. There was some specific feedback about the name 'Sheffugees'. It went down very well with asylum seekers Assist are working with. People felt it sounded welcoming, and made them feel part of Sheffield. Colleagues working with national organisations said the app was innovative and very exciting. People could really see the usefulness of the asylum journey too.

Lesson 2: Content before code

The Asylum Journey team are building a site to plot the services asylum seekers need to access at all stages of their stay, up to and past the point where they are approved or denied refugee status. They have made the most progress so far, partly down to numbers, but also having more of the same people across the two events.

However, the team also got a head start on understanding user requirements by taking a Lean Startup approach. They focused on getting something into the user's hands as quickly as possible and didn't worry about how rough and ready the solution was.

Watch this short video about Lean Startup if you are new to the idea:


The Asylum Journey team set up a sub-project to collect content while the rest of the team worked on building the new system. They used a free online tool called Trello, a collaboration tool that allows us to organise projects into boards (we use Trello here at Yoomee too). In this case, refugee organisations could add information to Trello up front, which meant the team learned a massive amount about what was needed before they had any working code to show.

The image below shows the Asylum Journey built in Trello. Over 90 pieces of content were collected before any working code was ready.

Their plan was always to move on from the Trello board once the new system was ready. This approach got the project off to a flying start. It meant the team could engage with users and quickly understanding the content structure needed. They gained interest and feedback without much software development.

Here is what the project looks like now it's been turned into a working prototype. You can also visit the Asylum Journey site to see for yourself.

Using Trello to build a minimum viable product (MVP) before building a 'proper' solution is a great example of Lean Startup in action.

Lesson 3: Hack day not hackathon

We've been lucky that those who attended the hack day are all experienced, full-time software developers and designers. The downside is that by Friday evening, when a hackathon typically starts, everyone's weary after a long week at work.

It's unrealistic to expect a mammoth, 24/7 coding extravaganza that goes into the night and lasts for an entire weekend. We've found starting on Friday evening with a two-hour review and kick off, followed by a decent night's sleep and a day's coding on Saturday works well. It leaves Sunday as a welcome break before returning to work.

It means the event is more like a hack day than a hackathon, so that's what we're going to call it from now on.

Read more about it

For more information about the second Sheffugees hack day, read this blog post by J-P Stacey, a freelance technical developer who has been part of both hack days so far.

Here's a quote from him:

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.

2017: Update

I'm delighted to say that the Asylum Journey tool is now live at https://asylumjourney.org.uk/ and continues to be supported the team of volunteers and used by many organisations across Sheffield. You can read Amy's blog post about it on Medium.

Posted on 21 April 2016 - By Andy Mayer
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