Coding for good: The rise of charity hackathons

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If I told you my kid was a computer hacker, you’d probably think of Julian Assange, the breach of US government computers, and every data theft movie you’ve ever seen. A hacker, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc.”

While this sounds like something that anyone in any sector would rightfully want to avoid, the terms hacker and hacking also have another meaning, one that can offer exciting opportunities for the nonprofit sector.

So, what else does hacking mean?

Toronto-based Shaharris Beh, CEO of the nonprofit tech community organization HackerNest, says, “Hacking used to mean criminal infiltration, but over the past half-decade the term has become more positive, referring to creative and clever technical development.”

HackerNest is an example of the emerging positive definition. It is one of a number of organizations involved with coordinating what are called hackathons — a kind of marathon for well-meaning computer hackers who build products and create solutions to address societal challenges. One of the first-ever events to be called a hackathon happened in Calgary in 1999 when software developers came together to develop programming solutions to avoid illegally importing US software.

Over the past few years, such events have become very popular. For a set period of time – often a 24- or 48-hour period — a variety of people skilled in technology (from programmers to graphic designers, project managers to hardware engineers) come together to collaborate on the quick development of a solution to a specific challenge. Beh says, “A hackathon can cram months or years of research and development into a few days. Prototypes developed at a hackathon will always need some reworking, but a hackathon is still a big shortcut to experimental innovation.” A hackathon tends to have a specific focus or theme, which is where charities and nonprofits have a part to play. While some hackathons are simply about developing new products, an increasing number of hackathons are being organized in partnership with and to benefit nonprofits and charities.

Hackathon for charities

Canucks Autism Network (CAN) of British Columbia is one charity that has recently benefitted from a hackathon. Last year, the organization was approached by software development trainers Lighthouse Labs, who were planning a weekend hackathon to help local nonprofits and charities with their tech problems.

“As a fairly new organization facing unprecedented growth, we found ourselves struggling to adequately manage the many operational processes that were being implemented across our hundreds of programs. We knew that technology was the solution yet we were limited in time, budget and expertise,” says Lindsay Petrie, CAN’s marketing and communications manager.

In advance of Code It Forward, CAN and the other charities had to determine a technological problem that could be solved by the experts over the course of one weekend. CAN’s challenge for the hackers: “Find an easy way to record, track, and manage the attendance of our over 200 staff, 350 volunteers, and 2000 participants in over 375 programs and 50 locations each year.” Petrie adds, “We knew that any solution would be far superior to our tedious pencil and paper manual entry process that was currently being executed.”

Frantz De Rycke, operations coordinator for CAN, attended the event along with the director of operations, Michelle Hohne. At the start of the hackathon, charities pitched their challenge to attendees who then had to choose which of the challenges they wanted to address. A diverse team of people quickly formed, meeting with CAN staff to further refine and understand the challenge before beginning to create a solution. De Rycke and Hohne attended for part of the weekend, and were on call for any questions the programmers might have. By the end of the weekend, the team had developed a prototype of an attendance app that CAN was able to begin to implement instantly. Petrie says, “The team created an application that would save over 200,000 key clicks and hundreds of hours every year.” There were also spin-off effects from the event, with one software developer continuing on as an occasional volunteer with CAN.

“We would participate again in a heartbeat,” says De Rycke.

Cost-benefit analysis of a hackathon for a charity

While hackathons take a variety of shapes and formats, at the end of the day it comes down to volunteering, as Maria Smirnoff, media coordinator for Ottawa’s Random Hacks of Kindness, points out to prospective participating charities. “We are a group of skills-based volunteers. Instead of giving cash, we offer skills and time to the charitable sector.”

Sometimes, however, charities are hesitant to get involved in a hackathon. Smirnoff says, “One of the biggest challenges we had last year was actually engaging with the charitable sector.” This can be attributed to a variety of possible factors, including unease about the word hacking.

Smirnoff also observes that underfunded and understaffed organizations can also, reasonably, be concerned about how much extra time and effort a hackathon will require of their staff. While hackathons do take considerable effort to organize, the effort required by the participating charities is quite minimal: “We spend an hour or two with charities and organizations, helping them think through their needs and to describe them in a way that will be interesting to participants. Other than that, charitable staff only need to show up for the event and stay for as much of it as they like.” Costs for hackathons are usually sponsored by corporate partners for whom, as Beh says, “hackathons are great for reputational capital as they associate the corporation with innovation.”

Charities may also be hesitant to participate in a hackathon due to a (perhaps unspoken) fear of technology, but this is something hackathon organizers are quick to address. “We want charities to use our solutions and not be scared away, and it’s exciting for our participants to build solutions that charities can use. Our role as organizers is to make sure charities are comfortable, to alleviate their fears and to let them know they will have support,” assures Smirnoff. Janelle Hinds, organizer of McMaster University’s DeltaHacks, says, “Participants know that the user experience is very important and that their solutions have to be functional. What they will develop will be about as comfortable to use as apps on your smartphones.”

Sometimes, Smirnoff adds, the problem a charity brings to the hackathon may require a highly complex tech solution while other times it may be a far simpler solution.

Charities may also think that their organization requires the latest and greatest technology to implement solutions, but some of the participating charities in hackathons have been very low-tech, simple organizations that still benefit from the process. Ottawa-based COMPASS Centre for Self-Directed Learning is an alternative high school. When they participated in Random Hacks of Kindness, they were trying to figure out how their students could showcase their non-traditional skills to potential employers and schools, rather than using transcripts. The solution was a simple webpage where students could easily upload a portfolio of their skills and accomplishments.

Examples of Nonprofit Hackathons

DementiaHack. In 2014, the British government committed to developing hardware and software that dementia patients, caregivers and researchers would benefit from. They approached HackerNest to run the successful 2014 pilot that brought together people in the dementia community (including patients) with people in the technology community to develop these products. DemetiaHack 2015 became a much larger affair, adding Facebook and the Canadian government to the list of sponsors. HackerNest matched participant teams with the mentors who would judge the competition well in advance of the hackathon so that by the time they came together for 30 hours of actual hacking, they had a good idea of what was needed. 350 participants developed 75 demos and were awarded more than $180,000 in cash and prizes in a science-fair-type judging format. Staff from charities could participate for as much or little time as they chose during the actual hackathon.

Random Hacks of Kindness. Random Hacks of Kindness grew out of a June 2009 panel discussion among computer developers who wanted to help create disaster-response solutions. The now-global movement spread to Canada several years ago, with an annual random Hacks of Kindness hackathon held in Ottawa (as well as other RHOK events in other Canadian cities). Six charities pitch their challenges on a Friday night. Participants then form teams based on their interests and alignment with the cause, and work together from Saturday morning until Sunday night. Participating charities are asked to send a representative for at least part of the event and to be accessible by phone or Skype. Unlike some other hackathons, RHOK is not a competition because, as organizer Maria Smirnoff says, “It’s hard to compare because the solutions are very different for different challenges. It’s also dangerous because there is a risk of comparing causes.” At the end of the weekend, each of the teams demonstrates a prototype of their solution. Some participants continue to work with charities as volunteers after the event.

DeltaHacks. McMaster University engineering student Janelle Hinds had participated in hackathons in other environments and decided it would be a good way for her peers to both make practical use of their skills and to do so for a good cause. In 2015, she organized DeltaHacks, a McMaster hackathon where students were invited to create solutions for whatever cause they were passionate about. In the 2016 iteration, DeltaHacks was held in conjunction with a health symposium where members of the McMaster health care community talked about challenges they have with their work – giving students a jumping-off point for their hackathon projects.

City of Waterloo CodeFest. Civic hackathons are also spreading, with an annual hackathon even being held at the White House, using publicly released data and new technologies to create tools to benefit their communities. In October 2015, the City of Waterloo made its data available to participants in its first ever civic hackathon. Teams of participants had 36 hours to create a functioning mobile application and only three minutes to present their product. The winning team (full disclosure: my kid is a hacker and was part of this team) used the city’s street trees and city boundary data to develop an app that allows citizens to monitor the health of trees and report trees that may be in distress, educates residents about the types of trees planted across the city and identifies the difference between a city-owned tree and a privately owned tree among other applications.

Note: While often only one in ten participants in a typical hackathon is female, participation in charitable hackathons is often nearly evenly divided between males and females. Frantz De Rycke expected the vast majority of participants in Code It Forward to be university students but says that only one of six participants in his team was a student. “It was nice to see that people of all ages were generous.”

How to get involved

  • Volunteer at a hackathon, suggests Beh, even if it’s not in your area of interest, to see how it’s run.
  • Find a hackathon and ask to get involved as a participant. Ottawa’s Random Hacks of Kindness is planning a June 2016 event and is looking for charities to bring challenges to the weekend. Organizations can be from anywhere, as long as they can send a representative to the hackathon.
  • Reach out to coding clubs at local post-secondary institutions to ask whether there is a hackathon in which your nonprofit can participate, says Hinds.
  • Figure out an intriguing challenge for participants. This isn’t a place to look for a free redesign of your website but rather to present a challenge that might be solved by technology.
  • Accept potential for failure. Some charities have participated in hackathons and have not found the solutions as useful as they hoped they would be.
  • Attend a “super-down-to-earth” Tech Social run by HackerNest each month in several major cities across Canada. You don’t have to be a techie to attend and you can likely find out what hackathons are planned in your region.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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