Scheid on Code4GoodPBC Hackathon

One of the flavors of the month recently has been “Digital Humanitarianism”, which generally amounts to deploying common digital technology for non-commercial purposes.

Randy Scheid (of the Quantum Foundationwrites this summer about “Code4Good”, a coalition of non-profits and technology developers who aim to “create change in the county’s vast health system”. [1] The participants include local organizations that are delivering services and technology students interested in social entrreprenureship.

Some digital humanitarian projects suffer from the great distance (in many senses of the word) between the software developers and the people they aim to help. Code4GoodPBC targets local problems (in Palm Beach County, PBC), partnering with local organizations who are already tackling them.

Furthermore, these organizations provided problems and challenges they faced. These were not necessarily sexy (not much need for cool robots or drones), nor even groundbreaking. A lot of the issues involved a lack of funding and resources, not a lack of knowledge or technology. In other words, these are the real problems, not the ones that undergraduates might imagine on their own.

I think this approach raises the probability of success.

Code4Good decided to kickoff with a Hackathon. Sigh.

I’m not a big fan of Hackathons. As someone who has spent decades trying to create, deploy, maintain, and protect real software systems, the word “hack” does not sooth me. Good software is not hacked up, certainly not overnight. And many hackathons are unstructured and generate zillions of “solutions” to non-problems.

The Code4Good folks seem aware of this, and structured the event a lot more. The organizations presented their problems, and the teams were tutored to help create useful proposals. It helped that everyone was local, so the problems and proposed solutions were easier to visualize and judge.

Part of the point of the hackathon was to capture the interest of “the kids”, the energetic tech students who might be able to create great solutions. One indication that the hackathon was tackling real problems is that “[t]he “flake-out rate” was rather high”.

Coaxing tech-savvy folks away from their own projects to participate in the event required significant effort and incentives.” ([1], p. 31)

While a hackathon might be a way to engage the interest of techies, and might engender potentially valuable technical solutions, it isn’t anywhere near a way to actually solve the problems. Deploying them requires a lot more than a cool idea.

The majority of the non-profits had nowhere near the resources, expertise, or commitment required to integrate new technology into their daily operations, even if the potential for immediate impact was clear.” ([1], p.31)

The “humbling” lesson was that technology alone couldn’t fix things, even if it is the “right” technology. On the other hand, Scheid says that the hackathon effort did add to the network of people and organizations collaborating on these missions. These are “long-term partners”, as he says.

“Code4Good” is a fine idea, but if you really want to solve problems, you need local people, with long-term commitments are needed. Hackathons are not really the way to go, not even to create technical solutions.

  1. Randy Scheid, Code4GoodPBC: Bridging the Gap between Innovation and Philanthropy. Computer, 50 (7):29-31, 2017.


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