Hackathons for good? That’s volunteering!

I recently tweeted out this message to my Twitter followers, and a few other people retweeted it to their own followers as well.

(you can follow me on Twitter here)

My goal was to write a detailed blog about all these different hackathons for good, and maybe even develop a web page on how to organize these kinds of episodic volunteering events (group volunteering events that don’t require a long-term commitment, that require just one day, or just a few days, of participation) related to technology.

Unfortunately, I have not had any response yet… but I’ll go ahead and blog about the examples I know about, and hope it leads to more examples:

The first event I ever attended that brought lots of web designers into one room, or one site, at multiple computers, to do something to help others for a few hours, was a web-building event by the Metropolitan Austin  Interactive Network (MAIN) in Texas in the 1990s. These web-raisings don’t happen anymore, at least not by MAIN, but what’s replaced it in Austin is something even better: the Accessibility Internet Rally, or AIR Austin, by Knowbility. This competitive event not only helps nonprofits get web sites – it also helps educate web developers and nonprofits about web accessibility for people with disabilities. It’s my favorite volunteering event – the perfect combination of fun, food, volunteering and making a difference. It’s so successful that not only does it happen year after year (it started in the late 1990s), not only do many of the web designers come back year after year to volunteer for the event, but the event happens in other cities as well.

I think Knowbility’s AIR events are the perfect hackathons, because they not only get work done – they also educate the participants about a critical issue. That isn’t just awareness – it’s transformative. The experience affects the web designers in how they approach their work when they get back to their day jobs. They design differently, and they think of nonprofits differently.

Hackathons have been around since the 1990s, but just the practice, not the name; now with its new branding, this form of episodic volunteering seems to be becoming all the rage.

One of the most high-profile hackathon groups is the nonprofit Crisis Commons, which produces “hybrid barcamp/hackathon events which bring together people and communities who innovate crisis response and global development through technology tools, expertise and problem solving.” Crisis Commons co-hosted the Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) event with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, NASA and the World Bank in 2010, with events taking place in cities around the world including Nairobi, Jakarta, Sydney, Washington DC and San Paolo. Software developers, usability experts, emergency planners, technologists, “social media knowledge workers,” project managers, NGOs and university professors met in each of the cities to volunteer or, as Crisis Commons put it, to “crowdsource open source solutions to very real humanitarian problems. There are seven main projects ranging building SMS applications to report amputee needs, near real-time UAV imagery processing to creating a people finder application.” Geeks Without Bounds (GWOBorg) has been a part of several Crisis Commons activities.

Also new on the scene of hackathons for good is Code for America, which, among many activities, hosts or co-hosts hackathons where developers and designers come together in, say, 24 hours, to “build applications for social change” and, sometimes, compete for prizes. Code for America offers its own suggestions for ingredients for a successful hackathon, based on its own experiences.

Jumping on the hackathon bandwagon as of 2007 is GiveCamp, which “a weekend-long event where technology professionals from designers, developers and database administrators to marketers and web strategists donate their time to provide solutions for non-profit organizations.”

Also new on the scene is Data Without Borders, which hosts various kinds of hackathons, also called Data Dives, that provide nonprofits with data analysis (data collection, analysis, visualization, and decision support) by volunteer “data scientists.”

Also listen to this presentation from SXSW about a hackathon in San Francisco related to DonorsChoose.org.

One thing that is both amusing and sad to me about all these hackathon events is that these organizations rarely use the terms volunteers or volunteering. The people contributing their time and talent are teams or pro bono researchers or Data Heroes – anything but volunteers! Very strange… and sad.


If you know of other hackathons for good, hacks4good, hacks for good, onsite crowdsourcing – whatever you want to call these volunteering events – please note the names of such in the comments section of this blog. Web addresses would be particularly helpful!

Also see: Short-term assignments for tech volunteers

2 thoughts on “Hackathons for good? That’s volunteering!

  1. Anca Matioc

    I’m currently coordinating the first ever regional hackathon – Developing Latin America – to take place on the 3rd and 4th of December 2011. With the support of our partner Random Hacks of Kindness, we’ll be connecting participants from 6 countries – Argentina, Brasil, Chile, M??xico, Per??, y Uruguay – for 30 hours to create applications that work to solve three transversal social problems – education, financial transparency, and security. http://desarrollandoamerica.org/I'd also like to add the WaterHackathon, the Twilio Hack Night, and various others throughout Latin America.


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