Why we need more hackathons for social good

What happens when you bring change-makers, innovators, writers, and designers together to work on a social issue? You see ideas turn into reality, find solutions to relevant problems, and build a strong community. A hackathon is one such event where people get the perfect opportunity to contribute to solving real-world social issues using technology-focused solutions.

What are hackathons

Hackathons are intensive, team-based events, where participants are asked to design a prototype such as an app, electronic database, or website in a short period. A team of industry experts, programmers, and content managers collaborate to contribute meaningfully to the type of solution needed. Initially organized only for tech-based problems, hackathons have now expanded to include varied subjects and participants. Government, nonprofit communities, and foundations organize hackathons nowadays aiming to develop technology for the common good. These events seek to address relevant problems like climate change, cleanliness, crime, health care, etc. The hackathons for social good are organized by nonprofit organizations to make progress towards a particular project goal. The teams work on developing new approaches to a specific problem the nonprofit is facing. Microsoft Philanthropies organizes Hack for Good, asking employees to use their skills to solve societal problems.

Bringing technology and social work together

Technologists apply their skills to create apps to address social problems like education, mental health, civic engagement. These apps are based on an enticing format but sometimes lack an understanding of the context of the problem they seek to solve, thus failing the utility of the app. When it comes to solving complex problems like poverty, lack of education, and global warming, the participants should be people who are closer to the problems the hackathon aims to address. Social workers with their experience can bring empathy and advocacy to the table. They can help technologists make their products more accessible, and encourage them to think about the risks and benefits of their prototypes. In fact, more tech companies should encourage their employees to engage with non-profits to find solutions to problems the organisation is facing.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has held several successful hackathons in different countries to address issues like climate change, species extinction, and education. Last year in April, UNDP organized a digital hackathon globally, to tackle the ongoing pandemic. The aim was to exchange and implement ideas for urgently needed solutions to global challenges. The #SecureSpecies was launched in India in 2019, to raise awareness on illegal trade in wildlife and develop tools for citizen monitoring and reporting. Smart India Hackathon is a government of India initiative to provide students with a platform to solve some of the daily life problems and develop a problem-solving mindset. We at Turn the Bus have made use of hackathons to create educational content for the students enrolled in Bihar board. High quality content is generated and processed out of hackathons to deliver education via smartphones to low income communities.

Social work participation in the development and design of technological solutions, from physical devices to software and hardware, will improve the ways we harness technology for the good of people.

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