Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!
It is a gray, drizzly Saturday morning, and the Parasol Room in the Evanston Civic Center is humming with the whir of laptops and the buzz of coffee. Twenty volunteers of all ages are huddled around several round tables, all focused on transferring the City’s website off its existing codebase onto a new, more efficient content-management platform.
The process is known in the technology arena as a “codeathon.” It is, in essence, a cooperative effort of volunteers to undertake a significant technological project, break it down into manageable parts, and complete as much as possible in a finite amount of time.
“We thought if we could get a whole bunch of people in for one day and help us move content from the old site to the new site, that it would save three months of work for me and give everyone else a chance to put their stamp on the website,” explains Erika Storlie, the web developer for the City of Evanston.
Volunteers were encouraged to bring in their own photos, and to contribute ideas for features on the new website. “There are all these tasks to choose from,” Ms. Storlie explains. “However, everyone can create their own tasks – they don’t necessarily have to work on the ones we decided we needed help with.”
The Codeathon is organized into three functions: developer, designer and computer-user. “We could really use everybody’s help,” says Ms. Storlie. “We wanted to allow people to come who just had general computer knowledge. You didn’t necessarily have to be a programmer.”
Looking around the room, Ms. Storlie observes that participants have organized themselves by function. She gestures to a table in the back, where participants are intently focused on their laptops. Among them is City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.
“It’s a good turnout,” says Mr. Bobkiewicz. “This is 21st-century volunteerism. Before, we would give people rakes or paintbrushes. Today, we’re giving them cords and coffee.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz is pleased that so many people have shown up to share their expertise and time. “Having 20 people with their laptops out, helping us move information, is going to save the City tens of thousands of dollars, had we either used staff time or contractor time. And it will help us get our website up sooner,” Mr. Bobkiewicz explains.
At another table, strategically positioned near an open bag of licorice and “fun-size” chocolate bars, is Evanston resident Chris Ernst. Mr. Ernst’s nine-to-five job is serving as the webmaster of Peapod.com, an online grocery-shopping-and-delivery service that got its start in Evanston’s Research Park. He is also involved in the City’s New Media Advisory Board, which helps provide Evanston with guidance on new technology initiatives.
At the moment, Mr. Ernst is helping transfer City events for the month of September 2010 off the old website onto the new Moveable Type platform. He explains why the task is fulfilling: “I live here. I believe I owe it to the community to keep it moving in what I think is a good direction. I’ve lived here since 1990, so I’ve been very active in all sorts of different things.”
However, not all of the volunteers in attendance at this Codeathon are long-time Evanston residents. Kevin Tam is a physics major at Northwestern University, and even though he has a series of finals the following week, he is hard at work on his laptop, donating his time to the City of Evanston. “I want the experience with HTML. I’ve written some, but I want to learn more,” Mr. Tam explains. “Even though we’re not getting paid, it’s a really useful way to get connected.
Mr. Tam is particularly impressed with the “Duck Race and Pluck,” which occurs in August as a fundraiser for the Evanston Environmental Association. Unfortunately for Mr. Tam, a college student, the event may be price-inhibitive. “It’s ten dollars, so it’s pretty expensive to sponsor a duck.”
The Codeathon was publicized through a number of different channels, including the City website, Twitter account (@CityOfEvanston) and Facebook page. However, Geri Benz, a graphic designer and stay-at-home mom, heard about the event through the City’s RSS feed. “I’m interested in doing websites, so I figured this would be a good experience for me,” says Ms. Benz. “It’s also a different platform: Moveable Type. I’ve never worked with this platform before, so it’s really good to know.”
Ms. Benz is also working on transferring events to the City’s new calendar, a task that she personally appreciates. “When I go home, I’ll have a lot of news to share with my husband about what we should be doing this summer.