How Sonia Hinson helped her nonprofit make sense of endless spreadsheets - DC

Software Development

May 11, 2015 10:50 am

How Sonia Hinson helped her nonprofit make sense of endless spreadsheets

For her first code, Hinson attempted to make sense of data to better determine where medical supplies should be distributed in Syria, Turkey and Jordan. Easy, right?
Sonia Hinson working on her site.

Sonia Hinson working on her site.

(Photo by Ashley Nguyen)

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) works with hospitals across Syria, Turkey and Jordan to provide medical supplies and trainings to ensure safe healthcare for citizens. To date, SAMS medical relief programs have trained 498 medics in emergency care, shipped more than $6.5 million in equipment and supplies and established 25 field hospitals where doctors can perform “damage-control” surgeries.

To a human being with a soft spot for global development or public health, this might seem just plain impressive. You might marvel at the impact SAMS has made and move on. But from an administrator’s perspective, you might wonder how they’re keeping track of so many projects in countries across the Atlantic.

This is where Sonia Hinson, a former program assistant at SAMS, comes in. After watching her colleagues update Excel document after Excel document to keep track of which supplies were going where, Hinson felt compelled to create an easier tracking system.

Here, Hinson tells us about her first code, which she calls the Data Slicer.

How she started coding

When Hinson was a teen, she always had a slight interest in web development. When MySpace was big, she constantly improved her profile. At one point, she tried to design her own blog. But at the University of Chicago, where she completed her undergrad degree, Hinson found the curriculum to be pretty theoretical.

“If I had done computer sciences, it would have been computer theory all the way throughout,” she said. “There weren’t really any classes with web design or practical programs.”

Hinson ended up majoring in international studies and coming to D.C., where she started teaching herself different programming languages in her free time. Hinson completed some Hear Me Code classes and kept improving through Code Academy and by seeking out any kind of practice with Python.

“I heard [Python] was such a universal language that I could use for different things, and the more I got to know how you can use it, I started to try data analysis and found so many uses for it,” Hinson said.

Her first code

For the grant Hinson was working on, her team constantly received data from hospitals SAMS supported, but it was hard to keep track of how SAMS had contributed that month. Did they deliver medical consumables (products used up more quickly) or durables (such as medical equipment)?


The data sent by hospitals in Syria, Turkey and Jordan helped SAMS determine which areas had more major or minor medical cases and which populations it affected (babies, children, male or female). Depending on the number of deaths or surgeries, SAMS could begin investigating if some health issues were caused due to violence in a specific area.

To calculate all this, SAMS was using four different spreadsheets, which left a lot of room for error, Hinson said.

“The main reason I started this [Data Slicer project] was because our partners were like, ‘Isn’t there any easier way to do this?’” Hinson recalled. Somewhere along the line, a developer was hired but couldn’t figure out a good way to track the data. SAMS needed someone who truly understood the nature of its programs and how the team measured and evaluated results.

So Hinson took a stab at creating a “one-stop shop to build the data.” The website she made allows users to upload CSV files with information and compared that data to the indicators SAMS needed to determine how effective it had been and where the aid should go.

“Stuff like this is really important with humanitarian aid and international development,” Hinson said. “It’s crucial to monitor and evaluate and make it easy for people to analyze the data from the grants.”

Try it out

Hardest thing to complete

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 9.32.10 PM

The homepage to Hinson’s Data Slicer.

Perfecting the function was the most arduous task for Hinson.

“The first round of the function I did to calculate everything was 200 lines long,” she said, adding that the longer it got, the more susceptible it was to mistakes. “I spent a lot of time trying to rewrite it and make it more concise.”

How long it took to complete

Hinson estimates she spent more than 100 hours on the Data Slicer after starting the project in April 2014. In November, she started showing the project to more people and has since worked out some kinks.

Though her boss at SAMS promised Hinson some time to work on the project outside of her normal responsibilities, Hinson said the clock struck 5 p.m. before she could dedicate herself to the project at work. Like most people learning code, Hinson built the app whenever she had a spare moment: At home, on Megabus trips to New York City to see friends and at playtimes.

Side projects

In Hinson’s world, Duke University didn’t necessarily win March Madness. Hinson created a function to calculate a gender equality score based on the university or college. Though she hosted it locally, the website she made generated a bracket that chose how teams advanced based on that score.

Advice for current/future coders

Hinson has found a lot of things work: Sometimes taking a daylong break and coming back helps. Googling questions and looking at people’s examples is beneficial. Studying and surrounding yourself with people who are experienced is indispensable.

But above all, if you want a job in tech, don’t give up. Hinson nabbed a job in the industry a few weeks ago and starts today, May 11. She’s staying mum on the company for now, but said she has been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time.

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