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Chicago Migrahack Winner Offers Lessons on Persistence in Hacking
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Chicago Migrahack Winner Offers Lessons on Persistence in Hacking

Journalist Dan Hill’s most defining quality is his persistence. At Chicago Migrahack, all of his teammates dropped out by Saturday evening, but Dan refused to give up. He pulled an all-nighter and produced a game that challenges users to draw the U.S.-Mexican border.

Judges gave Dan the hackathon’s best insight award. They liked that the simple presentation took a current meme (GeoGuesser) and added an education element. And they liked Dan’s perseverance, noting that “sometimes, collaboration is all about just showing up.”

Dan still hasn’t given up. He’s continued to work on his project, and here, he shares what he’s learned:

I never thought I would build an interactive game about immigration.

In college, I wanted to combine my immigration interests with my journalism and computer science studies, but I struggled to find detailed data to visualize such a complex issue.

The Migrahack in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood challenged my assumptions. Guest speakers presented creative storytelling techniques, and I met bilingual friends who helped me find statistics from the Mexican government.

At the time I was pretty obsessed with the game Geoguessr and was interested in satellite imagery thanks to a blog post about aerial views of prisons. I had also been reading about the fascinating culture of border cities like El Paso and Juarez that appear to be one metropolitan area despite straddling two countries.

I built “Draw the Border,” a game that challenges players to draw the US/Mexico border over an unannotated satellite image of a border city. Not only had I never worked with so much immigration data, but also it was the first interactive game I built.

I was proud of my work that weekend, but Migrahack continued to motivate me to illuminate immigration issues with technology. I visualized immigrant detention data at the Texas Tribune and attended my second Migrahack event earlier this year in Mexico City, where I built a website to help a Sinaloa nonprofit share its work.

More than a year after I started “Draw the Border,” I revisited my original Migrahack project to improve on the prototype I hacked together in a few frantic hours. I updated the design and added levels to the game, allowing players to explore five different border cities. Based on my experience with “Draw the Border,” I offer these simple tips for continuing a hackathon project after the original weekend:

Allow yourself to make mistakes.
The version of “Draw the Border” that I presented at Migrahack was a JavaScript mess, but I used the challenge of upgrading the game as an opportunity to learn new techniques. Coding is best learned by doing, and hackathon projects are great ways to try new tools.

Ask for help.
Migrahack creates diverse communities to hack at its events, and I tried to continue this spirit after the weekend by open sourcing the “Draw the Border” code on GitHub. Wilberto Morales, who worked on the amazing “Finding Care” project at the Chicago Migrahack, gave me kind advice and contributed some code.

Set achievable goals.
I left Migrahack with a list of ideas to improve “Draw the Border,” but breaking my updates into bite-sized tasks helped me maintain momentum. Just like hackathons require pragmatism to build a minimum viable product in a short amount of time, continuing development after the weekend demanded careful decision making. I really wanted to “make the game more awesome,” but “add four more levels” and “make a button to switch levels” were more achievable.

Dedicate time.
Just like Migrahack defines a two-day timeframe to grind on a project, I had to set aside hack time. I made the most progress at meetups and hangouts with Wilberto. Ultimately a focused hour listening to a news podcast about child migrants helped me get the new levels out the door.

Keep the passion.

I couldn’t stop working on “Draw the Border” because the project was so interesting to me. Staying in touch with Migrahack friends and taking on new challenges in Mexico City kept the project on my mind.

I’m grateful to Migrahack for inspiring me to tell immigration stories and encourage you to get involved. The “Draw the Border” code is open sourced on GitHub, I welcome all ideas!

Reach Dan @DanHillReports.

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