Pioneer Press: Twin Cities nerds code for a cause

by Andy Greder

St. Paul Pioneer Press
John Heimkes of team Raxacoricofallapotorius, gives a thumbs-up for a photograph as he gets a cup of Red Bull from a Donkey Kong-themed ice sculpture late Saturday night. Heimke's team developed the website for the Windmill Project. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)

They were running on "high octane liquid nerd fuel" and writing computer code at 4 a.m. They were eating Twizzlers, creating flashy new websites and vying for prizes such as an arsenal of NERF guns.

They were 180 self-proclaimed nerds who forfeited sleep and their Saturday night for the fifth annual Twin Cities Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. Eighteen teams - including "The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen" and "Get off my LAN" (a nerd-tech term) - were each matched with a local nonprofit and given 24 hours to bring the organizations' websites out of 1990s.

Their work, valued at $500,000, was donated to the nonprofits, while the Star Wars Lego set and other toys were just parting gifts.

"For a nerd, this is like Christmas morning," said Jason Reed, who didn't take home a gift but helped the "Two Unicorns, One Moon" team win the overall competition with its site for West African Medical Missions. "When the alarm goes off (Saturday morning, March 24), I pop out of bed and I have the gear in the car....I'm here at 6:30 in the morning when registration opens."

By the 9 a.m. deadline Sunday, March 25, "Two Unicorns, One Moon," a group from TST Media in Minneapolis, created a site with "high-fidelity visuals" to recruit Twin Cities volunteers, and a simple companion site for users with a slow Internet connection in Sierra Leone.

"We are driving away with a Ferrari," said Gabriel Schlough, executive director of West African Medical Missions, based in Minneapolis.

Forgoing a relaxing weekend to pull an all-nighter working and eating junk food in a stuffy conference room is so sought-after that the host business, The Nerdery, had to turn away about 150 other nerds, er, web professionals, because of the tight space.

"We hate to leave people out, but there was so much demand," said Mark Malmberg, The Nerdery's communications manager.

Nonprofits also were turned away in droves. In 2008, the web challenge's first year, 11 nonprofits received new web sites. Once it reached its limit of 18 this year, the group had to say no to about 50 nonprofits, Malmberg said.

"Once you look at what they came here with, what they leave here with is worlds better," said Meghan Seawell, whose "Team BIOS" wasn't one of the four finalists. But now she has enough Nerf guns to start a backyard war.

For the teams, the challenge is to create a website to match the nonprofit's mission statement and goals; the geeky fun comes in by adding hidden features.

The team "Ruby Off Rails," a group from The Nerdery's office in Chicago, set up the Center for Homicide Research with a new content-management system, smartphone apps and a Konami code, similar to those in 1980s video games.

At the new website, visitors can listen to music if they hit a series of keystrokes similar to "up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start" from the Nintendo game "Contra."

"We do it for the nonprofit, but we also do it for the developers," said Ruby Off Rails member Kelly Meath. "We add our own flavor and fun."

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Joe Barhorst of Spyder Trap yawns as he works with his team, called Run PHP, on the Cancer Legal Line's website late Saturday night. Almost 180 self-professed nerds worked 24 hours straight March 24 and 25 to help 18 Minnesota nonprofits build better websites free of charge. The 2012 Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge took place on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)
St. Paul Pioneer Press
A clock nears the halfway point at the 2012 Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Lindsay Flint, left, and Lindy Yokanovich, right, of the nonprofit Cancer Legal Line take a break and relax with warm towels on Saturday night. The two women stayed up for 24 hours with their team Run PHP to work with the website designers. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)
St. Paul Pioneer Press
The coffee station at the 2012 Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)
 St. Paul Pioneer Press
Sisters and Nerdery volunteers Tracy Fuller, left, and Alyssa Fuller, right, take a break from work to play air hockey. (Pioneer Press: Sherri LaRose-Chiglo)