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Matt Layman
Matt Layman

Posted on • Originally published at

From Concept To Live In Two Weeks With Django

My team had two weeks to make a viable product. We were a random group of people pulled together with a desire to help our local community in Frederick, Maryland. We were a student, a web designer, a former realtor turned IT support person, and a software developer.

Our mission, which was put forth by the virtual hackathon that brought us together, was to try to make a tool to help the local homeless.

We were assigned to a sponsor, the director of the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership (SHIP). The goal of SHIP is a noble one. The partnership seeks to help the homeless in our county that are young. These homeless youth face many challenges related to their health, education, and basic needs like food and shelter.

The director outlined his plan for helping some of these youth. Knowing that many are equipped with mobile phone in our modern world, he wanted to create an app that gives these youth all the information they need to find support services. My team's job was to build that app.

Our Plan

The virtual hackathon was a two week event where teams worked on nights and weekends to build a project. Since we only had two weeks to pull something together, we had to make decisions about what was possible.

Our sponsor provided the goal posts and specified what he wanted in the final project. We needed:

  • The ability to display a local service (like a food pantry) and show the address to get directions or a phone number to make a call or a variety of other useful facts about the service.
  • A way to categorize the different kinds of services into some logical groups for easier navigation.
  • A method to get immediate assistance to a person with a pressing need.
  • A way to let local people stay connected with announcements.

Given our team composition (i.e., we weren't all grizzled software developers) and the time constraints, we ruled out making native mobile applications. We didn't have the experience to build native apps in Android and iOS, nor did we have the time to get through app store review and approval processes.

Because of our constraints, we decided to make a mobile web app. As the software developer on the team, we relied on my past experience to pick the right technology. I'm a big proponent of reaching for pre-built tools if possible. We considered if we could build the site with something like Squarespace or Wix. We also considered the 900 lb gorilla of WordPress. After thinking through the options, the team ultimately decided that those tools weren't going to have the flexibility that we needed from someone else's pre-built layouts and templates.

Knowing that we wanted something custom and knowing that I was the guy who needed to write the bulk of the code, we picked Django, my old friend.

Bringing The App To Life

Having a realtor on your team is great for working well with a customer. My teammate was able to work very closely with our sponsor to figure out what was really desired. We initially received a brief from the hackathon organizers of what we were expected to build. After some chats with the sponsor, what we found is that he was really looking for something like the What I Need (WIN) app built by a group in Los Angeles, CA.

With his affinity for making social connections, my teammate hustled to do interviews with the people behind the WIN app and another group in New Jersey that the also deployed the app. From that research, we were in a fantastic position to build what the sponsor wanted.

One of my personal observations from this experience is that a very diverse team with wildly different skills can produce great results. Had the team been composed of people with no interest in making these connections and doing proper customer research, I think we would have delivered something far inferior.

We knew that our sponsor essentially wanted a clone of the WIN app. With that in mind, that's exactly what I built for version 1 of the application.

Building The App

I made a few technical choices that I think permitted the team to make rapid progress building the application. We picked the following technology:

  • Django - The web framework provided all the tools that were required to build a database-backed web app that could display the information we needed.
  • Tailwind CSS - This CSS framework is an extremely flexible toolbox that gave us the ability to iterate on the look of the application very quickly.
  • Heroku - Using Heroku as the hosting platform dramatically simplified deployment of the app down to a single command: git push heroku master

Since we already devoted multiple days to customer research and product investigation, I only had a couple of days to build an application if we wanted to demonstrate the app to the sponsor at the end of the first week.

Thankfully, Django does most of the heavy lifting for starting a new project. Coupled with my past knowledge of the framework and the tools in the ecosystem, I developed a WIN clone. The Django models for the application were a bit rushed, but I assembled enough pieces to be able to display categories and services that a user would need to see.

I didn't know what data our sponsor wanted for Frederick so I copied the categories that I saw from the WIN app and used Tailwind to mock up a similar UI. (Pro tip: I needed each of the categories to show as a different color, but I didn't build that into the initial model. By using the cycle template tag, I was able to show a unique color for every category. It was a good hack for achieving visual interest without complicating the data model initially.)

At the end of the week, we did a demonstration to the sponsor. For the demo, I ran the application locally on my computer with ./ runserver. Then I connected to ngrok and shared the URL via email so that each of us could view the site on our own mobile devices. ngrok is a great tool to share your localhost quickly with other people.

Our sponsor was really pleased with our progress. More importantly than the pat on the back, he added hugely valuable feedback about features that we missed that we still needed to build. He observed data that the app missed and the lack of a notification feature for users.

With one week to go, we needed to:

  • Get the site up on Heroku
  • Evolve the cloned UI from the WIN app into something better for our own application
  • Add the features requested by the sponsor

My first priority was Heroku. I didn't want the application to be something that could only run on a local development web server. Even though Heroku is great and Django works well on it, there is some setup work to do. I needed to update various configuration for static files and reading settings from environment variables before the app was ready to go. WhiteNoise and django-environ are two tools that make getting Django apps onto Heroku much easier.

Once the Heroku setup was finished, I added a bunch of great user interface work done by the web designer on our team. Tailwind made this process much easier than might otherwise be possible. The new design really refined the UI and add the level of polish that my initial mockup lacked.

Since we used Tailwind, integrating the design mostly involved updating some Django templates and little else. Because Tailwind is so focused on HTML, I didn't have to line up HTML to a certain structure that matched class or id ordering in a CSS file.

Our final feature to add was a user notification feature. For this resource app, we didn't want users to have a login with a username and password. Dealing with user management for a community of homeless youth would be a large maintenance burden for the nonprofit organization. Instead, we opted to use a mailing list.

The simplest solution we would devise for building a notification system was to use someone else's system. A mailing list is a well known channel for communicating and most people on the internet get an email address at some point. By using a mailing list, we were able to skip handling of user accounts and scheduling background jobs that run outside of the normal web browsing experience.

To make the mailing list convenient for our sponsor, I used Django's syndication feed framework to create an RSS feed for the announcement model that we built into the app. Since we had an RSS feed, we could connect that to a Mailchimp automation. Mailchimp will manage the user list and automatically send out emails whenever the announcements RSS feed is updated. From our sponsor's point of view, all he needs to do is create an announcement within the Django admin site.

That brings us to the end of the hackathon. At the end of the second week, we did a final presentation where the sponsors and hackathon judges could assess the final product.

We won! I got a nice t-shirt and my name in the local tech news.

Post Hackathon Activity

After the hackathon was over, we needed to do some final work to make the site real for the nonprofit organization.

Our final demo happened on an auto-generated domain name on Heroku. I worked with the sponsor and did some DNS configuration to get the new tool at a proper subdomain. We also needed to make the app available all the time and get it off of the Heroku free tier which will cause the app to "sleep" when not in use. A sleeping app has a poor user experience since it takes quite a bit of time to start up again when someone visits the site. Thankfully, the app is so small and has so little data, that the nonprofit can use the Hobby tier for a tiny bill of $7/month.

The site is live today and you can check it out. Remember, it's optimized for mobile devices, but it looks decent in a full browser too (thanks to the design work and Tailwind). We named the app "SHIP Haven" and it's viewable at

Additionally, you can view the code! We did all the work in the TechFrederick GitHub organization in the ship repository.

I had a really good time putting this project together. The time pressure and working with a team of people that I didn't know was a fun experience, and I'm very pleased that we were able to produce something that our community can use. If you have the opportunity to participate in a local hackathon in your community, I highly recommend it! I hope you learned a bit from our experience.

If you have questions or enjoyed this article, please feel free to message me on Twitter at @mblayman or share if you think others might be interested too.

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