You, too, can hack for good causes

Hackathons offer opportunities to design new software and hardware. Citizens from all walks of life are using them to battle social problems – local and global.

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters/File
People sit at computers inside a former hangar at Tempelhof airport before a 'Campus Party' event in Berlin in 2012. The tech festival included hackathons where participants work together intensely to solve a problem.

Feeding Forward is a mobile application that is on the front lines of a battle against food wastage in the United States.

Since its launch in 2013 the app has helped recover more than 690,000 pounds of food to feed more than 570,000 homeless people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Feeding Forward won the AngelHack Silicon Valley Hackathon in 2012.

This innovative solution is yet another example of how technology is triggering social change. But it also reflects a growing trend: collective citizen impact. Indeed, citizens from all walks of life and sectors are hacking socio-economic problems – whether local, regional, or global.

Hackathons offer developers and coders opportunities to design new software and hardware, usually in an intensive day-long session.

Seeing the success and potential, the tech world started to leverage hackathons to design digital solutions for social and economic challenges, spending caffeine-stimulated sleepless nights coding for change.

Yet many promising prototypes failed to yield the expected outcome because when implemented, the solutions rarely matched the real problems. Why?

Even though hackathon participants were genuinely interested in social change, they were not armed with the all the necessary information, especially about realities on the ground.

Over the past couple of years, a much stronger wave has emerged that combines technical and practical expertise in the form of civic hackathons. These events are an effective way to raise awareness about issues, understand the real needs, and develop relevant solutions.

Social good hackathons have sprouted around the globe with a mission to tackle major issues such as access to education, health, climate change, disaster management, and even food and clothing.

From San Francisco to Seoul, community organizers, developers, designers, and  entrepreneurs along with government staff are increasingly turning to hackathons in a bid to put their heads together to find concrete and achievable solutions.

For instance, Human Dignity was the winning pitch at this year’s XPrize Visioneering gathering. The concept aims to provide a scalable and sustainable pack-and-go housing solution for refugees around the world.

Online platforms such as OpenIDEO maintain a hackathon approach but the challenges are often stretched over months to allow users to understand people’s needs before diving into solutions.

Grand challenges led by XPrize, OpenIDEO, Sankalp’s Social Design Jam in India, or Harvard’s Data Fest are just some of the major initiatives that are cultivating change from the grass roots.

I recently attended an education hackathon organized by Cartes Blanches in Paris, France. Buzzing with energy and motivation, the room was full of people, young and old, employed and unemployed, from the public and the private sectors. More than that, it was an event that connected like-minded people who were rallying for a common cause: rethinking the link between education and the world of work.

In my opinion, these hackathons are an ideal way to empower and engage young minds to become future agents of change. Millennials are eager to leave a mark on the world and are on the lookout for inspiration to launch their own start-ups and initiatives. They are also frustrated due to the shortage of opportunities to develop their ideas and creativity. Social good hackathons and jams can help fill the void.

So what skills do participants need to take part in a social good hackathon? The essentials include creativity, team spirit, and an open mind with plenty of enthusiasm to solve problems. And FYI: Coding is not a necessity.

In fact, not all challenges are linked to technology. Civic hackathons that incorporate human-centered research are also on the rise.

A global campaign that remains etched in my memory is the Gates Foundation’s Global Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2012. The Foundation challenged universities around the world to design affordable toilets that could transform human waste into useful resources such as energy.

Hackathons – be it massive gatherings, an online hub, or a large-scale global challenge, are creating opportunities for communities to solve problems with the appropriate talent and skills set. In a day and age when one size does not fit all, community-driven solutions are the key to solve local challenges. And this happens when citizens are understood, involved, and engaged.

• Sebastien Turbot is director of Content and Programs at WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education).

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