Hack4Good at Alliants - An Insight from James Burrows of Southampton University

Hack4Good is a global event organised by Geeklist, a social hub for hackers, programmers, and the tech community, with the sole aim of putting charities with technical 'problems' in connection with a highly skilled group of people who want to solve that problem. Hackers, coders, programmers from all walks of life from the young to the... experienced, gathered in cities all around the world with their laptops and a substantial quantity of pizza for a 48 hour session of creativity.

I attended the Southampton Hack4Good, held by Alliants at their offices in a secluded marina during some of the worst weather England has had in a while. I was researching Humanity Hackathons and Hackers for my Sociology dissertation and Alliants and Geeklist were kind enough to let me attend and get involved despite my incredible lack of computer skills. I arrived early and was met with the enticing smell of pizza, plenty of drinks, a large TV showing the live stream of all the other Hack4Good events around the world and a game of darts. When everyone else arrived we gathered together to for the two charities to present.

The first charity was Learning Through Landscapes (LTL) (http://www.ltl.org.uk/) where the problem was presented with the aim of helping kids use their ever increasing screen time to get them outside, running, and helping to help prevent child obesity. The Second charity was the Nukanti Foundation (http://www.nukantifoundation.org/), based in Colombia and South America, they help children who are affected by conflict and poverty with projects from photography lessons to Football games. Nukanti also has a Fair Trade online shop selling handmade Jewellery, Handbags, and Accessories. The problem that was presented was to assess the suitability of the shop as it has been having failing sales over the past few months. 

After initial brain storming for ideas, the groups split into three teams, the first two focusing on LTLs problem and the last working with Nukanti. The first with the aim of creating a 'Wiki for Games' app that children could assess to give them different ideas for activities they could play. The second team was based on a already well planned idea to create an app that would use Image Recognition and Geo-Caching to create a Treasure Hunt app. Kids would have to find objects using clues from the app, created by a secondary “Teacher” app which maps the Treasure Hunt, and take pictures of objects to see if they have found it. The Third team was looking at Nukanti's website and shop and during the night took the initiative to create a whole new website using much simpler software, something that Charlotte from Nukanti was really surprised about. This website became live during the event and is the one you will find in the link above.

In the morning when I returned (I couldn't handle an all nighter despite being a student) I found everyone was already slightly zombie like but were still super keen to work on their projects... with the exception for shower breaks, much to my relief. I sat with the Nukanti Foundation team and was swiftly press ganged into working on the website regardless of lack of experience. This was incredibly useful for my research as I was able to feel exactly what it was like to be part of these projects. My task was to simply move content from the old website across to the new one and rearrange it. A simple enough task but I did manage to fall at some simple hurdles but luckily the rest of the team were happy to help me out. I became quickly aware of the motivation created by the Hackathon to work, I was working for about 12 hours without too much of a break, and this was all voluntary! No pay, no immediate benefits, only the satisfaction from helping the charity and a chance of a prize but that didn't seem to be a major motivation for anyone.

The next day I arrived again in the morning to find a greater number of zombies fuelled mostly by the almost endless supply of energy drinks and left over pizza. We got back to work and all teams made great progress with their projects for the final leg. We came together to present each project for the judges who would decide which functioned the best, best solved the charities problem and could be a viable app to be made public. The judges conferred and concluded that the 'Wiki for games' app won, but in the true fashion of hackers no one took it too seriously and no one really minded that they lost. The Nukanti team for instance made a great new website that has increased the sale of its Fair Trade products and is now really easy to maintain and customise and not a single ill word was spoken about not winning.

I found some really interesting things out from my research, the most important is that Hackers are awesome! I had a great time despite working harder than I do for any of my assignments, and also not working as hard as everyone else at the event. The people from Alliants were brilliant hosts with the constant supply of food and drinks and letting us use their HQ for the whole event. The two charities that came were also awesome and I hope they enjoyed working with the hackers and will make use of the products from the event. Everyone who spoke to me for my research I would also like to say thank you! You put up with my ethics forms and constant questions and I am really grateful! You all made some brilliant things over that weekend and it was a pleasure to be a part of that! I hope to meet everyone again for interviews to continue my research which I'm really excited about as they were all a great bunch of people with some really interesting stories to tell. 

Out of all of this, however, I did learn one really important fact... never say that Hackers do IT, they know how to create mobile apps, websites and other software but probably can't fix your printer!

Stay Classy!

James Burrows