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‘Oh Hack’… what is a hackathon for social good?

by Dr Jim Ormond and Jane Fiona Cumming

A buzz word which has regularly popped up in innovation and sustainability discussions over the past few years has been ‘hackathon’ … but what is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event in which people from different backgrounds / disciplines come together and collaborate intensively on a project. Hackathons’ can last from a day to two weeks, with the aim of taking existing datasets (or creating new datasets) and presenting them in new, unusual ways to solve a problem or challenge.

Typically, hackathons have focused on developing new software or hardware technologies; bringing together computer programmers, graphic designers, interface designers and project managers. For example, Yahoo! has run an open hack day since 2006, and Facebook recently hosted its 50th hackathon. In this hackathon, Facebook employees from across the company took a break from their regular projects to develop ideas about artificial intelligence over a 24-hour period. 

Hacking for social good

Interestingly, hackathons have also been used recently to address social and sustainability challenges. Recent examples include

  • Transparency Camp Europe. Hackathon to build new applications that improve transparency and open the black box of EU decision-making.
  • Hack4Good. Events hosted in London and 27 other cities to encourage people to use their skills in software engineering, design, and product development to rapidly build or 'hack' projects for social good.
  • ‘Hack the Frack’. Coders, developers, activists, artists, designers and writers brought together by Friends of the Earth to imagine and create a new set of online tools, mobile apps, games, and resources around their fracking campaign.
  • EFSA Hackathon:For developers and designers with innovative ideas for developing a mobile app that gives access to EFSA’s recent and ongoing work in a quick, user-friendly way. First prize is €20,000.
  • ‘Peace Corps for Geeks Hackathon’.20-hour long competition for teams of 3-4 people to come up with development-focused apps, addressing real problem statements from Peace Corps projects around the world. A panel of judges awarded $2000 to the best projects.
  • Cloudcamp Social Good Hackathon. Event sponsored by Intel and HP for software applications that have a “social good impact and make a difference in people’s lives”.  Top prize ($5,000) went to Feedjoy – a software platform for food banks to optimise the distribution of food - including a “intelligent food donation bin” that sends real-time information to the food bank to further improve its efficiency.
  • Hackathon on Climate Smart Agriculture (Peru):Hack event to develop applications building a bridge between the large amount of scientific information generated by CGIAR and the rural population of Latin America. Problem statements included ‘how can I improve the nutritive quality of the food I produce and improve my food security?’.

Other recent examples include: International Development Hackathon (ID Hack); Building Smart, Sustainable Cities Hackathon

5 tips for a good hack

Looking across these examples, a number of factors can be identified for a successful hackathon…

  1. Invite a mixture of people, skills and experience.Hackathons require participants to step out of their normal roles and skill sets. This means interacting with different colleagues and performing unfamiliar tasks.
  2. Ask the right question. The question or problem statement should be aspirational, without prescribing a likely solution, allowing participants to have the freedom to think of as many ideas as possible.
  3. Get idea onto paper/screen straight away. Prototype and test ideas quickly, this can be as simple as drawing an idea onto paper.
  4. Provide data, pizza and a prize. Provide everything a hacker could need, from computers, data, expert advice, to food, coffee and showers.
  5. Judge the ideas, pick a winner and put into practice. Put resources behind the strongest ideas and hone them after the hackathon.

What is interesting about the rise of hackathons is that they fit into a wider trend in which organizations are looking to harness the power of the ‘crowd’ to help solve some of today’s most pressing social and environmental problems. So while hackathons can help companies develop new products and services, or enable multi-stakeholder groups’ to address sustainability challenges, the benefits echo beyond the outputs of a single event. Hackathons offer a new way to promote cultures of innovation and inclusion, challenging the operating norms of how our society considers and addresses the major challenges facing organisations’.


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