There’s a movement among some programmers to consider how their work should, perhaps, be dedicated to higher causes.
And now there’s another spin on the hackathon, and it happened over the weekend at Seattle’s Impact Hub in Pioneer Square.
Code for the Kingdom brought together developers from local software companies, big and small, eager to meld their spiritual beliefs and their day-job programming skills. The goal, as stated by the group, was to tackle global issues “with a Christian perspective,” although non-Christians were also welcome. The “kingdom” in the title refers to the idea that all areas of work and life can be integrated into one’s religious beliefs.
Competing for $10,000 in prizes, about 70 people from the region worked on a diverse set of projects — including apps to fight human trafficking, streamline the process of connecting homeless people to social services, organize volunteer efforts and better meet the specific needs of non-profit medical teams.
Bellingham-based Logos Bible Software was one of the event’s principal sponsors, along with the Leadership Network, a faith-based venture-capital network, and smaller Seattle startups like TheoTech and Labs8.
The winner of the $2,500 prize for the best use of existing code was Andrew Ma, who spent the weekend working on Vision, his app for volunteer optometrists working on short-term medical aid trips to the developing world.
“Optimization is one of the gifts God has given me,” said Ma, whose day job is as software development engineer in Amazon’s instant-video division. His app, designed to be run over bad or spotty Internet connections in rural areas on an Android phone, matches patients with donated eyeglasses.
Ma built his app to meet a very specific need, “to free up people from operational tasks so they can love people.”
The $2,500 prize for best original code went to Sarah Williams, Aaron Stockton and Michelle Zimmerman, developers of Word Cross, a memorization tool that lets children build and play crossword puzzles out of Bible verses. It incorporated Logos’ API, Biblia.com, and won, in part, because of its potential to help kids learn how to teach other kids.
Williams, a software development engineer at Amazon, was, like Ma, keen to address a particular issue with a technical solution. In this case, the solution took a marathon 48-hour-plus coding session starting Friday evening.
She is always eager to mix her faith and talent. “It’s a need in one way, and a joy in another way,” she said. “Technology is one vehicle by which [the] change which [God] wants can come about.”
Two other apps developed over the weekend were crowd favorites for how they tackled social justice issues in the region.
Minmap helps churches more efficiently partner with other non-profits to face endemic challenges like urban poverty and homelessness by mapping the locations of faith-based and non-faith-based social services on a detailed global map. It would let shelter volunteers, for example, know where to direct people if they ran out of room.
Ikos (from oikos, Greek for “family”) was built in response to a request by the local Gates Foundation-supported VisionHouse for a mobile app that would streamline the process of applying for housing and other social services. It won the people’s choice award for best overall app.
Brian Howe, Impact Hub’s founder, was impressed by the unique nature of the hackathon, noting that it’s the first time the venue has hosted an event where the common theme of the projects was spiritual. Impact Hub’s mission is partially to help community groups and non-profits find technology that will fix their specific challenges.
With Ikos, especially, Howe was impressed. “The ROI on that is incredible,” he said, in terms of the practical result of potentially saving time and energy.
Howe and Impact Hub donated $1,000 to the event organizers to host follow-up meetings for the ideas forged at the hackathon.
Chris Armas, the on-the-ground facilitator for the Leadership Network, hoped the event would create a self-sustaining ecosystem of faith-based startups in the region, and eventually, around the country.
“We all have the conversation about how to serve the kingdom in the marketplace,” he said. “But this is how we do it – the community owns it.”
Armas has tentative plans for a follow-up event in Seattle next year. This year’s hackathon is part of a national series. The first was held last year in the Bay Area, followed by one in Austin, Texas. The next will be back in San Francisco in May.
In the meantime, Armas said he was encouraged by the innovation and buy-in he saw from Seattle-area coders. Hacking for higher causes is a way of giving back, and it can be a way of making money. But either way, it is also a way to make one’s work meaningful, he said.
Armas and the other event sponsors and organizers hope that the ideas launched here are part of bigger process: one in which coders use their skills for the good of their community.
“It’s more than a hackathon,” he said. “It’s an ongoing way of life.”
Will Mari is a PhD candidate in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication. He studies media history and the history of tech. He also tweets about etymology @willthewordguy.