Tag Archives: hacks4good

volunteers scramble to preserve online data before government deletes it

Online volunteers aren’t always remote; hackathons and Wikipedia edit-a-thons bring together people in the same physical space, at the same time, to volunteer online, to code for good, to create content for the arts or under-represented groups or science topics on Wikipedia, and now, to preserve critical scientific data that is under threat by the new Presidential administration in the USA.

ProPublica found that the new administration edited an educational website for kids to significantly downplay the negative impacts of coal. The White House also removed all of the data from its portal of searchable federal data. The site previously included data on everything from budgets to climate change to LGBT issues. It now displays a message telling people to: “Check back soon for new data.” Staff under the new Secretary of Education have deactivated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) web site. You can still see it at http://www.archive.org. That archived version is packed with information for parents of children with disabilities. If you go to the new web site, however, you’ll see a greatly-scaled back web site, with a lot of information no longer available.

Groups are organizing through traditional social tools like Twitter and Facebook to help preserve information before it disappears and to retrieve information removed from official government web sites.

This 25 February 2017 story on the CNN web site, Why Trump’s election scares data scientists, talks about Data Refuge, which was founded after the election with a goal of tracking and safeguarding government data. The volunteer group of hackers, writers, scientists and students collects federal data about climate change in order to preserve the information and keep it publicly accessible. In the past three months, Data Refuge has hosted 17 events where hundreds of volunteers learn how to copy and publish research-quality data. The group, which grew out of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, also monitors scientific research that depends on government funding because there’s concern this could dry up.

One platform, data.world, is a social network exclusively for people who want to find and collaborate on building data sets, much like how programming site GitHub lets coders collaborate on building apps. It already has tens of thousands of open government data sets available.

This 13 February 2017 Wired.com story, Diehard Coders Just Rescued NASA’s Earth Science Data, talks about volunteers coming together across the USA to preserve online scientific information and other info they fear will be permanently removed from government web sites under the Trump administration, and building systems to monitor ongoing changes to government websites. By the end of one day, one group had collectively loaded 8,404 NASA and DOE webpages onto the Internet Archive, effectively covering the entirety of NASA’s earth science efforts. They’d also built backdoors in to download 25 gigabytes from 101 public datasets, and were expecting even more to come in as scripts on some of the larger dataset finished running.

But there is still much work to do. “Climate change data is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Eric Kansa, an anthropologist who manages archaeological data archiving for the non-profit group Open Context. “There are a huge number of other datasets being threatened with cultural, historical, sociological information.” A panicked friend at the National Parks Service had tipped him off to a huge data portal that contains everything from park visitation stats to GIS boundaries to inventories of species.

Some of these efforts on Twitter:


@SeattleDataResQ (the photo above is from Seattle’s hackathon – used with permission)

Also see:

Advice for and examples of One(-ish) Day “Tech” Activities for Volunteers

Hackathons for good? That’s volunteering!

Where are the evaluations of hacksforgood/appsforgood?

Open Air Hackathon – Nonprofits Get Web Sites, Designers Get Accessibility Training

Wikipedia needs improvement re: volunteerism-related topics

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Thanks to everyone who has purchased it so far! Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Fewer Pilots, More Scale: Making Digital Development Work

Back in September 2014, I starting whining about the lack of anything sustainable coming from most of the hackathons / hacks4good / apps4good I was seeing popping up all over in support of nonprofit organizations, government initiatives and various communities, in the USA and abroad. My whining culminated in this blog, where are the evaluations of hacksforgood / appsforgood?

I’m so pleased to see this outstanding blog (IMO) by Ann Mei Chang, Executive Director at U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID, which says, in part:

“despite the potential impact, distorted incentives encourage one-off, flashy pilots (many sourced through hackathons, contests, and PR opportunities), undermining the potential for sustainable and scalable digital solutions. In fact, the proliferation of duplicative and uncoordinated mobile health applications caused an overwhelmed Uganda Ministry of Health to call a moratorium on further efforts in 2012, to ensure a focus on interoperable and sustainable systems… (in developing countries, there is) a lack of relevant platforms and infrastructure (that) means that developers end up spending the vast majority of their time rebuilding similar components from scratch, ending up with less time and money to truly innovate. Too much time and effort is wasted on duplicative work like beneficiary registration and tracking, negotiating and integrating with mobile operators, and promotion and distribution. The result is one-off systems that are fragile, unintegrated, not designed to scale, and unsustainable.

“This cannot continue. The development community needs to invest in reusable systems and the collaboration necessary to build and use these systems. This will mean smarter solutions designed for scale and sustainability.”

Right on, Ann Mei Chang & USAID!

In addition, Ben Ramalingam’s recent Institute of Development Studies blog points out that responsible digital development must also consider the risks of unintended consequences, exaggerating existing inequities, security, and repression.

USAID helped draft the Principles for Digital Development, a set of best practices for building technology-enabled programs, starting with the user. The Principles have been endorsed by over 50 development organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sida, UNICEF, WFP, and USAID. In February, USAID launched a report based on conversations with donors, implementing partners, and development practitioners to better understand how the Principles work in real-world contexts and how we can best integrate them into our organizations.

Also see:


Oct 15 deadline for apps to facilitate dialogue, prevent conflict

PEACEapp is a global competition to promote digital games and gamified apps as venues for cultural dialogue and conflict management.

Have you already developed a game or app like this? You could win $5000 in recognition for your work. Do you have an idea or a prototype for a PEACEapp? You could win expert mentorship to support its development.

The PEACEapp global competition organized by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the United Nations Development Program in collaboration with Build Up to promote digital games and gamified apps as venues for cultural dialogue and conflict management. Additional partners of PEACEapp include GamesForChange and the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The competition is open to three kinds of entries: (i) digital games and gamified apps developed purposefully for this competition; (ii) already existing digital games, and (iii) creative re-purposing of existing digital games to meet the aim of PEACEapp.

The competition will consider entries at all stages of development – from prototypes to fully developed. PEACEapp’s international jury will select five winning entries: three that are fully functioning and two that are in development. The three fully functioning games or apps will receive an award of USD$5,000 each. The two in development will receive mentorship from expert partners. In addition, one member of each award-winning team (completed or in development) will be invited (all travel costs covered) to the Build Peace conference (Cyprus, April 2015) to share their product with conference participants.

The deadline for applications is October 15, 2014. Winners will be announced by November 30, 2014.

And on a related note: I am looking for examples of using social media to promote respect, tolerance, reconciliation.

UN innovation events show how far they’ve come re: ICT4D

The change is stunning. And welcomed.

Back in 2001, my first year working as an employee of the United Nations, I was a part of a little department of six people (and various interns over the years) within UNDP/UN Volunteers, managing two projects: the Online Volunteering service (then part of NetAid) and the Secretary General’s United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS). Our team could not have been more excited to talk about virtual volunteering, technology for development (ICT4D), ICT4D projects by volunteers in the fieldhandheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy, citizen-designed tech solutions, using tech to work with remote volunteers, crowd-sourcing for development (though we didn’t call it that then), south-to-south knowledge exchange ONLINE, hacks 4 social change (though we didn’t call it then), and other tech4good activities to anyone who would listen! It was an incredible four years of my life.

Unfortunately, many of our UN colleagues never understood our projects – or our boundless enthusiasm for such. Despite our events, workshops, one-on-one meetings, online resources, singing and dancingdrums, support from the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, whatever else we could think of, our activities were met with eye rolls by many of our colleagues. By the time I left that assignment, the new head of UNV (now long-gone) was proudly proclaiming that most of our initiative’s activities, save the online volunteering service, were finished – not because they had met their goals, but because they weren’t needed, and never had been. Even the UNITeS web site was taken off-line for a few months (hence why I keep a version here). Our team went its separate ways.

UNDP innovation logoNow, 13 years after we came together in Bonn, Germany and tried to get the rest of the UN excited about our crazy ideas, and nine years after most of our activities were ended, it’s fascinating to see UNDP in particular fully embracing those ideas: The UNDP SHIFT campaign, focused on innovation (and many of the ideas we tried to promote back at the start of the century – see graphic at left), is the week of 22 September 2014, headquartered in New York City (the “Social Good” summit) but happening all over the world, including here in Kyiv, Ukraine (details soon!).

We can’t take any credit for this change happening, of course. But my colleagues can feel good to know that we weren’t quite as crazy as people thought we were – we we really were on to something worth pursuing by the UN. We were just a decade or so early!

(although… we were pretty crazy…)

Somewhere, Sharon Capeling-Alakija is smiling.

Advice for hackathons / one-day tech events looking for projects to hack

In a conversation with a friend participating in Myanmar’s first-ever hackathon to benefit causes or nonprofits, as well as reviewing recent, similar hackathons all over the world, and other one-day tech events for good like edit-a-thons, it seems to me that the easy elements of putting together these events is securing a space for the event and getting skilled volunteers for such, but the much harder part is identifying projects for these volunteers to work on.

I’m also wondering if any of these projects get evaluated six months or a year down the road, to see if the organization or cause that had an app or web site or database or whatever developed has benefited from the development. For instance – are these apps that are developed actually used six months later?

My favorite hackathon is Knowbility’s Accessibility Internet Rally, which brings together web developers, as volunteers to both learn accessible design techniques and then apply those techniques to building web sites for nonprofit organizations. It’s my favorite because the event is always so much fun, the volunteer web designers take the skills and knowledge they learn from the hackathon back to their workplaces, and the nonprofits still love their web sites many months later.

But it’s pretty easy to sell the idea to nonprofits of volunteer web designers re-creating their web sites. My review of hackathons and edit-a-thons shows that identifying other projects, like apps development, is MUCH more difficult. If you walk into a nonprofit and say, “Do you want an app to help you in your work?” most nonprofits won’t have an answer. Same if you say to most nonprofits, “What wikipedia pages do you wish had better info related to your organization’s mission?”

So I’ve been thinking: how can hackathon or edit-a-thon organizers identify projects or causes for the event? Here are some of my initial ideas. Please add more!

  1. Research nonprofits in your community, and get a sense of how many they are. If you are in a small town, you may want to make a list of every nonprofit in your town (which you can find on Guidestar) and then do some research to see which are active (do they have a web site? does the org’s name come up in a Google or Bing search? Can you find an email address for the org?). If you are in a large city, don’t be under the illusion that you can reach every one of them – even big cities with nonprofit associations cannot say that every nonprofit is a member.
  2. Ask organizers what nonprofits they work with in any way – as a volunteer, as the spouse of a volunteer, as an event participant, etc. In short, look for nonprofits where someone involved in your event already has a personnel connection.
  3. Review what apps previous hackathons elsewhere have created for nonprofits, or what edit-a-thon efforts have benefited nonprofits. Also see this very long list of apps that have been developed for specific nonprofits. Would such app development be appropriate for any nonprofits in your community, at least in theory?
  4. Meet with nonprofits more than once, and with as many different staff members as possible. Just sending an email announcing the event won’t be enough to get nonprofits interested in participating. Sit down with nonprofit representatives face-to-face and speak in non-tech language as much as possible. And remember that different staff members will have different ideas for needs – for instance, here is a list of apps I envisioned that managers of volunteers might want/need.
  5. Don’t meet with any nonprofit that you haven’t gotten to know via its web site – you want to already have an idea of what the nonprofit does, whom it serves, its mission, etc. You may want to do a mapping exercise with the nonprofit regarding how it reaches and serves clients, to identify ways an app or database might help. When asking them what their biggest challenges are, you might want to add “except for fundraising” because fundraising will almost always be the #1 challenge for every nonprofit, and most participants in hackathons want to work on projects related to nonprofit missions/programs, rather than fundraising (at least that’s my experience).
  6. Have a list, in writing, of what a nonprofit would be committing to if they decide to participate. What are the dates and times nonprofit staff would need to meet with organizers and to be onsite at the event? How many hours do you estimate their participation will require? What are your expectations of the nonprofit after the event in terms of evaluating whatever is developed as a result of your event?
  7. If you want to create a smart phone app, have data to show nonprofits that demonstrates that a significant number of potential volunteers, potential clients, and current volunteers and clients, have smart phones. If you cannot prove this, most nonprofits are not going to be interested in investing in smart phone app development.

Those are some of my ideas. What are yours? Share them in the comments here on my blog, or on this thread on TechSoup.

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

Short-term tasks for tech volunteers

There are a variety of ways for nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), schools, government agencies and other mission-based organizations to involve volunteers to help with short-term projects relating to computers and the Internet, and short-term assignments are what are sought after most by potential “tech” volunteers. But there is a disconnect: most organizations have trouble identifying short-term tech-related projects.

Back in 2005, myself and by members of TechSoup Global’s Volunteers and Technology online discussion group brainstormed a list of short-term projects for tech volunteers. I’ve added a lot to it over the years – and just updated the list yet again this week.

These one-time, short-term volunteering assignments might takes a few days, a couple of weeks or maybe a month to complete. But each has a definite start date and end date, shouldn’t go on longer than a month (maybe two) and does not require a volunteer to make an ongoing commitment to the organization – once an assignment is done, the volunteer can move on to another assignment, or stop volunteering with the organization altogether.

There are also many long-term, ongoing assignments for tech volunteers, of course, such as web design, web site management, being on-call for tech problems, backing up systems, producing live online events, etc. But before an organization involves volunteers in such high-commitment endeavors, the organization should consider creating a few short-term assignments, to get used to working with tech volunteers and to help staff identify the best candidates for longer-term assignments.

Tags: volunteering, volunteers, episodic, microvolunteer, microvolunteering, engagement, engage, community, outreach, staff, employees, civil society, technology, help, IT, ICT, ICTs