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How two Iowa companies use internal hackathons to give back

Hunter (left), a cancer survivor, and his family stopped by Far Reach on Saturday to share his story and experiences with the 16-person team. 

Over the years, companies like Google and Facebook have become infamous for their internal hackathons with mass amounts of takeout food, innovative solutions and hacking into the wee hours. But for two Iowa companies, hosting company-wide hackathons has become a way to give back to their communities. 

For Cedar Falls, Iowa-based Far Reach Technologies, the decision to reach out to local nonprofits was a natural one, especially considering the development firm’s core values.

Number one? Make a difference. 

“As a service company, sometimes it’s hard to see the difference we’re making on individual projects,” Chris Rouw, partner at Far Reach, told Silicon Prairie News. “A website is nice, but you can’t really see the people you’re helping or how you’re making a difference.”

So in early 2014, the Far Reach team opened up public nominations for the inaugural Operation: Make a Difference. The pool of applicants eventually was pared down to five organizations, one of which would receive the tech-related feature—website, mobile app, custom web service—of their choosing free of charge.

Far Reach opened the decision up to a Facebook contest and Rouw says votes overwhelmingly favored Children’s Cancer Connection, a Des Moines-based nonprofit that helps families of children with cancer in Iowa.

Beginning at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, the entire Far Reach team spent the next 12 hours creating a mobile-friendly online treatment binder for Children’s Cancer Connection families. Rouw explains that when a family joins Children’s Cancer Connection they receive a binder full of information, from helpful resources and a glossary of common terminology to space to track chemotherapy treatments and record prescriptions. 

By digitizing the binders, the Far Reach team makes it easier for families to access vital information about their child’s health and treatment on-the-go. 

Throughout the day members of the Children’s Cancer Connection team as well as families from the Cedar Falls area stopped by the office to show the team their binders and share their experiences with the nonprofit. 

“I can pretty safely say there is nothing more humbling than hearing about and observing the strength displayed by these kids and their families in the face of something so incredibly scary,” Far Reach partner Kate Washut wrote on the company’s blog. “It inspires not only humility, but admiration and a sense of awe as well.

“The journey these families travel is a long and arduous one, and if what we accomplish today makes life even a little bit easier for them, we will consider the first Operation: MAD a straight-up success.”

While the Far Reach team spent 12 hours March 8 working on the mobile-friendly online binder for Children’s Cancer Connection, Rouw says the project will likely be one they complete and fine-tune in the months to come. As for another civic-minded internal hackathon, Rouw says he can see the event potentially becoming a regular annual occurrence. 

“I know that was really great for everyone here to be able to see firsthand the people they were impacting,” he said.   

The participants of Geonetric’s 2013 Operation Overnight, which was held in Cedar Rapids in October. 

About an hour southwest of Cedar Falls, a second Iowa company has established another way to help provide under-served nonprofits and other organizations with tech services.

Now in its third year, Operation Overnight is an annual internal hackathon that has helped Cedar Rapids-based Geonetric better connect with its community. 

“It’s definitely a program I think we’ll continue repeating,” Geonetric CEO Eric Engelmann told Silicon Prairie News. “It’s something very visible in the Cedar Rapids community.”

Operation Overnight’s 2014 application will open to nonprofits June 2 and close Aug. 1. The third annual hackathon will be held in Cedar Rapids from Oct. 23-24.  

Over the course of a weekend, each Geonetric team will spend 24 straight hours working on a project for a local nonprofit. Engelmann says the teams do everything from build websites to design logos and—in YouthPort’s case—even come up with a new name.

In 2013, about 60 Geonetric employees volunteered to help build resources for five groups, including the Cedar Rapids Science Center, YouthPort (formerly known as the Child Family Community Collaboration), Jane Boyd Community House, Oak Hill Cemetary Association and Wheelchair Ramp Accessibility Program.


Credits: Operation: Make a Difference photos from FacebookOperation Overnight photo from Geonetric.

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