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Hacking for Humanity

Oct 19, 2011

by Michelle Traub

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Computer developers may seem like a solitary type — silently hunched over that glowing screen deep into the night, building your next favorite app — but the truth of the matter is, there is a richly embedded tradition of collaborative programming. Hackathons, physical events at which engineers gather to build code together, first emerged in the late ’90s, and have come to embody the serendipity and creativity of collective technological cooperation.

It was only a matter of time before other sectors of society would sit up and take notice. A new crop of hackathons are attempting to bring the power of the free-thinking technocrat behind the ideals of social and political non-profits. On Mashable.com, Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org reasons, “The smartest people in the world are focused on problems that don’t really matter. What we want to do is dedicate the time, effort and energy of those people to important issues.”

Last spring, Rattray organized Hack for Change, resulting in the creation of apps focused on missing persons, food exchanges, and activist boycots. Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) has brought together not just Republicans and Democrats, but even Google and Microsoft, in the name of disaster-risk management and climate change. Code for America is intent on offering web leaders the opportunities to be civic leaders, while 5050‘s Famine Hackathon focused exclusively on the East African food crisis.

The problems that non-profit organizations aim to address typically have plagued us for generations, requiring innovative solutions that transcend convention and strapped budgets, conditions with which enterprising developers are more than familiar. Elizabeth Sabet of SecondMuse, RHoK’s parent organization, reflects on the productivity of the hackathon infrastructure: “RHoK celebrates hacking in its most positive context — using minimal resources and maximum brainpower to create outside-the-box solutions — ‘hacks’ — in response to interesting problems.”

It seems evident that social change is not the only sphere that could benefit from the philosophies of the tech world. What other fields merit a hackathon brainstorm?

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