Mission-driven Innovation Is In Our DNA


A reflection on AWS' Non-Profit Hackathon for Social Good


by Geetha Ramachandran
AWS
Non-Profit Hackathon for Social Good At A Glance

Each team was comprised of 5 members who took on one of the following roles:

  • Front-End Developer
  • Back-End Developer
  • DevOps engineer
  • Product Manager
  • Architect

The 4 non profits that participated were:

  • Compassion
  • Game Changer
  • Women Who Code
  • Goodwill

During the Fall of 2018, I received some exciting news from my manager at FINRA: I was to attend Amazon’s re:Invent conference in Las Vegas in November. It would be my first time attending the event despite having been an ardent follower of previous re:Invents virtually through social media. If you have been to conferences but not to re:Invent, it’s hard to explain just how “big” re:Invent is. It’s a 5-day event across several properties and there are so many sessions and workshops that it is hard to choose where to go and what to learn.

One particular conference event stood out to me among all others: the Hackathon for Non-Profits. Now, I have attended, supported, and even hosted hackathons, including FINRA’s annual Createathon. The energy at these events is amazing, as are the interactions with new people and new ideas. I was anxious to experience the combination of energy and altruism that this event promised.

I started the day with yoga and meditation to calm my nerves and focus my mind. Once I reached the venue, the organizers of the hackathon helped participants to form teams. Each team was comprised of 5 members who took on one of the following roles:

  • Front-End Developer
  • Back-End Developer
  • DevOps engineer
  • Product Manager
  • Architect

As DevOps is totally in my wheelhouse, I joined a team who was looking for someone to fill the DevOps role. Here we were, Sergey, Rajesh, Cameron, Geetha and Eileen; 5 individuals who didn’t know each other, had vastly different backgrounds, came from different countries, but all shared one thing: an extreme passion to build and innovate. After brief introductions, we quickly set up a Slack channel, a GitHub repository, and an AWS account and started scouting out the challenges put forth by the 4 non-profits that Amazon had chosen to participate in the event.

The Challenge

As 9:00 AM rolled around, each non-profit was given a few minutes to present their challenge in front of the entire group of participants. The 4 non-profits that participated were:

  • Compassion
  • Game Changer
  • Women Who Code
  • Goodwill

Each of them detailed their mission and talked about the problems they were trying to solve. It was heartening to hear each story. Each of us could instantly connect to the mission of many of the non-profits; there were multiple challenges that garnered our emotional attachment and it was hard to pick just one. In the end, we decided as a team to compete in Goodwill's challenge.

Goodwill was looking to create an engagement platform to help empower the underprivileged and unemployed with career development opportunities that provide growth and improve overall quality of life. Specifically, Goodwill wanted to create insights into the success rate and progress of the initiatives at every local Goodwill center. Here is their problem statement:

We need to establish, improve, and sustain communications with people who want to advance their careers with Goodwill's Job Coaching and Training programs.

With our tools established and our challenge selected, we began the work of architecting the solution. We listed out the logical components, broke them down into different tasks, assigned the tasks within the team, and (finally) started development. We made an extra effort to communicate continuously, constantly checking to make sure we were aligning with the overall solution. We also committed to orienting our development to ensure that each component would be demo-able at the time the judging took place.

Goodwill

Goodwill was looking to create an engagement platform to help empower the underprivileged and unemployed with career development opportunities that provide growth and improve overall quality of life. Specifically, Goodwill wanted to create insights into the success rate and progress of the initiatives at every local Goodwill center.

Learn More

We were able to build and demo 3 major components as part of our solution. All the components were built using serverless technologies:

Outbound Engagement Platform

Accessibility was a key goal for this project and we wanted the platform to be able to reach as many users as possible. We chose to implement multiple outbound interfaces because the some of the target user audience members may not have smart phones or may be uncomfortable using features like a chatbot or text messaging. The outbound engagement platform included:

The ability for all of the components to integrate with the same AWS Lex conversational service allows us to maintain the same rules and algorithms for the conversations independent of the service or medium that calls it.

Goodwill Career Path Portal

Our team built a web portal using AWS API Gateway, AWS Lambda and AWS DynamoDB to allow users to:

Goodwill Career Analytics Platform

Our solution provided Goodwill with the ability to view engagement trends through an analytics platform built with AWS Kinesis to collect data, AWS Athena to store the data, AWS Quicksight to generate insights from the data. Goodwill job coaches are able to view the progress of both individual users and groups of users based on a segmentation strategy. The analytics platform allows Goodwill to devise better engagement strategies, identify training courses, and monitor each franchise's progress with employment coaching.

The Result

After over 10 hours of ideating, designing, developing, and testing, we were rewarded with first place in the Goodwill challenge. You might think this was the best part of the hackathon but it wasn’t. Winning was just the icing on the cake for what was a truly rewarding experience to benefit a noble cause. The experience was one of the most humbling and satisfying endeavors I have enjoyed in my career. It got me thinking about how lucky I am to come to work every day for an organization like FINRA, a not-for-profit whose mission to protect investors and ensure market integrity is so important to society. In hindsight, this hackathon was very much a reflection of the work I do day in and day out.

Want to see our solution? Click here.