All over the world technologists are increasingly using the hackathon model to solve societal problems. Whether it’s to fight government corruption or to help feed the homeless or to enhance education, hackathons for a higher purpose are going strong.
Here in the Northwest, a group of faith-motivated programmers echoed that idea. They assembled for the second time at Pioneer Square’s Impact Hub for Code for the Kingdom Seattle, part of a network of religious hackathons happening across the globe in the U.S., Canada, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The event, now in its second year, was sponsored by the Deaf Bible Society, the Leadership Network and World Vision. The latter is a huge international NGO based in Federal Way that routinely partners with the Gates Foundation. Other sponsors included Seattle startup TheoTech and Bellingham-based Faithlife.
Over this past weekend about 80 people, many of whom work by day as developers and engineers for local tech giants (or tech giants with local offices), including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, coded through Friday night, Saturday and in some cases Saturday night. They focused on issues such as mental illness, strengthening families, human trafficking, helping the deaf community and connecting NGO’s to their supporters. Others worked on Android versions of apps that debuted last year, including one that’s designed to connect one’s prayer life online.
VisionCaster, the runner-up for best new code, included World Vision staff and volunteers. Inspired by an app built by the UN to increase awareness of what’s going on in Syria (via Samsung’s Milk VR video service), it uses Google Cardboard to immerse viewers in the NGO’s field projects. The idea is to replicate experiences in the field, like seeing clean water access at work or ongoing disaster response efforts.
In addition to solving problems during the hackathon, Worldvision was eager to connect to potential future hires, according to Leslie Annis, who recruits tech staff for the NGO.
“We want to get in front of technologists and let them know that we’re here in this area and we need them to join us in the work that we do,” she said. “It was really fun to see that many technologists together in a room creating really cool things for purposeful, missional work.”
Steadfast, an app to encourage spouses to concretize their support for each other, won the people’s choice and best new code awards. The app reminds people to do kind things for their spouse, like sending flowers or notes of encouragement.
StudyChurch won for best existing code. An online e-learning platform, it’s intended for use by weekly “small groups” that meet in homes and coffee shops, allowing collaboration and conversation over a shared text and eventually through video and audio content.
A common motive
Although more than $1,200 in prizes was on the line, the chance to sit down and write code with others for a good cause was the primary draw for many of the participants.
“There’s no limitations, really, any idea can be the best idea,” said Allen Wong, a graduate student at Northeastern and a contractor at Google. Wong, who works on the Google Maps team, was filming a vodcast from the hackathon.
Wong’s passion is creating vodcasts and podcasts that talk about the intersection between faith and technology in applied ways. “To actually see people take a shot at these things – you don’t see that often.”
A team that did not place among the prize-winners but was still regarded as important was Seattle Against Slavery (SAS)’s pilot project. SAS, an anti-human-trafficking nonprofit, has collected data on people, mostly men, who seek sex online. Their goal is to intervene early in the process and keep buyers from connecting with sex workers, who are often underage, migrants or otherwise exploited. By working with former users and survivors of trafficking, and with support for ad buys from Google, SAS is revising its messages to make them more effective and empathetic.
By finding more about the typical user in King County, and targeting them with ads that persuade them to think twice, the idea is to reduce the supply and thus the demand, said Robert Beiser, SAS’ executive director. SAS participated for the first time in a hackathon specifically to get help from software engineers like Kirsten Stark.
“I wanted to be in a place where there’s a stronger connection between my work and my faith,” said Stark, an engineer at Midfin Systems in Redmond.
“We love Jesus and other people and want to help them.” Helping the users and offering them alternatives by showing that others care for their underlying needs is a ‘very Christian approach’ to intervention,” she said.
Sarah Williams, whose team won a $2,500 prize last year for best original code at the inaugural event in Seattle, was back this year as a mentor and volunteer.
Now a manager at Amazon, she’s valued the colleagues and connections that came from last year and continue into the present.
“Now more people know about it… and know what I’m talking about,” she said, of sharing the event with her network.
A common community
Event organizers hope that the hackathon’s participants can continue to meet monthly to code and collaborate. To that end, they maintain an active Meetup.com group and Facebook page and invite interested Seattle-area coders to join. An upcoming conference in November will also tackle faith and tech from a more academic perspective.
Meeting together for a common cause – and creating and sustaining community – is part of the ongoing legacy of niche hackathons.
Wendy Stevens, a health specialist at a small Tumwater-based company, N2N and Associates, was at the hackathon on Saturday working on an online-based system for crisis management.
To her, the fact that programmers from rival companies were working together was part of what made the event inspiring.
Their faith was a “point of reference,” she said.