'Happiness Hackathon' tackles cyberbullying through innovation

A 'Happiness Hackathon' held earlier this month brought 15 teens from around the US to New York City to build tools to stop cyberbullying.

Schoolyard bullying has moved onto the Internet – but that doesn’t mean thoughtful people can’t stop bullying through digital means.

That’s the idea behind the Happiness Hackathon, held earlier this month by Coca-Cola and online campaign site DoSomething.org. The companies solicited ideas for stopping cyberbullying from hundreds of teens around the US ahead of National Bullying Prevention Month, then flew 15 finalists to New York City for a one-day hackathon.

A hackathon usually refers to an event where computer programmers gather to work together on a particular security or coding problem. In this case, the finalists were split up into five teams of three, with a mentor for each team, and given time to come up with a workable online method to address online bullying.

DoSomething says that most of the finalists had personal experience dealing with bullying, and that, while more than 70 percent of kids and teens see online bullying “frequently,” most don’t feel comfortable speaking up about it.

“We see people of color [and] LGBT kids experiencing bullying at a scale that’s way higher than other people,” DoSomething hackathon mentor Shae Smith said in a video about the event. “It’s important to have those types of experiences in the room to ... make sure that whatever solution is brought to the table, solves the issue for everybody.”

The solutions created by the five teams varied dramatically. One came up with an app that would allow people to send each other compliments to brighten up a bad day. Another outlined a framework under which social media users whose accounts are suspended for bullying others would have to take an online anti-bullying seminar before the accounts could be reinstated. A third proposed placing QR codes on soda bottles that would let someone send an uplifting greeting card to a friend.

Because the hackathon was designed to encourage collaboration and include a diversity of perspectives, no single winner was announced. But DoSomething says it’s trying to get the participants’ ideas built into social media platforms and app stores.

“We're absolutely committed to being in touch with the teens and advocating for them and their ideas,” DoSomething chief operating officer Ariana Finger told Mashable. “We are committed to this long term.”

The Happiness Hackathon hasn’t been the only event designed to use digital tools to encourage social changes. In September, an event called PeaceHack brought designers and developers to Beirut to build prototype technologies that could stem violent conflict by improving access to water, electricity, education, or basic services. Proposed solutions included a website where refugees could securely back up ID documents, and a set of open data tools that could be used to inform nongovernmental organizations about issues such as crime and corruption.

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