A guideline to organising ” Hackathons for Good”

Hackathons can be transformative events that bring together people from diverse backgrounds and skillsets to work toward solving a problem. Most of the hackathons for social good are organised during the times of crisis or around civic data /issues when sufficient attention is present. This provides a channel for concerned people to contribute to creative solutions.

These are mostly organised with good intent, however, it is important to keep some things in mind when organising a hackathon for good. It is important to keep in mind that these events are designed to work out problems that could be sensitive so steps must be taken to protect uses. Hence it is even more important for these to be done/organized with care.  

Based on our extensive experience organising hackathons (and making mistakes), here are some guidelines for any organiser planning a similar event :

  • Ensure the presence of Right Mentors :  

   It is important to remember that the hackathon is not the entire intervention, but part of a long term engagement with communities that are in need. So the hackathon experience has to be a learning opportunity for everyone involved, this requires that strong mentors who have a good understanding of the ground reality, deep understanding of the data and realistic tech solutions are required to ensure success.

   Most people attending hackathons have (thankfully) never experienced humanitarian crises, and so their understanding of the ground realities are often romantic. A lack of experience can lead to creativity in a solution, but this must be balanced with applicability. Building solutions which are unlikely to be used successfully is a poor use of time and resources, as well as simply being disheartening. It is important to instead inform work based on past experience (while still encouraging innovation).

  If you are organising a hackathon, ensure that you have mentors who can bridge these different spaces. These mentors could be people who have built and implemented technology for social good. They could also be people who are practitioners on various issues.

   In the recent years with the influx of Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) solutions in most humanitarian areas has led to brand-new but untenable issues such as

  • Critical Data breaches
  • Building irrelevant/”scratch my own itch” solutions
  • Choosing an non-secure platform to build on

   Experienced mentors will be able to shape the experience, solutions, and later implementation.

  • Right Intentions do not guarantee Right solutions :

   You would be surprised to know how many times best intentions don’t lead to right solutions. For instance, it is definitely not a good idea to stalk someone without their consent in the name of protecting them from harassment, as this continues to disempower them, rather than addressing the core problem. Good intentions are insufficient. Someone wanting to intervene in an unhealthy system has to take into consideration various components like individual privacy and security, local context, culture, and other moral and ethical considerations for a solution to achieve its purpose at a systemic level. It is important to follow responsible practises of development in order to not simply recreate paternalistic approaches in technological interventions.   

   One of the ways of avoiding these mistakes is to enable healthy critique and discussions while building tools. Another good practise is to make a list of “bad-actor” user stories and check if your solutions can stand those tests.

  • Vett your data :

   Hackathons are opportunities to make innovative use of opened up government data and other open data. However, such sharing must not violate the privacy and security of individuals and organisations, and the shared data must be interpreted and used responsibly. Many of the organizations opening up their data are also new to this practice, and so a claim that the data is depersonalized may not be true. Act as an ethical tester and provide feedback to the originating data host. As organizers it is your responsibility to make sure the data is in correct form, safe, and secure for users.

Here is an example of how de-anonymised data can do harm.

   Data from untrusted sources is also questionable. Not only might it violate the consent of those who own the data or have shared it, but it could also provide incorrect analysis, which is crucial especially when working on projects of humanitarian causes.

Hence, as a rule never let anyone use or provide unclean, unvetted data sets.

  • Hacks are not complete solutions :

   A Hackathon is usually conducted over a period of 24-48 hours. This period is long enough to build prototypes of solutions. Solutions in real world need a lot more than a proof of concept for implementation. For example, while working with data collection of a marginalised communities like sex workers, it is vital for the solutions to include security of data. Adding a security layer or anonymising the data is usually not possible within the time period of an hackathon. Such solutions must be worked upon over a period of time and tested thoroughly with those organisations working with similar issues to avoid major damages. It is also advisable to work with the end users for usability and relevance.

  • Learn your audience :

   It is highly important to work as closely as possible with the eventual end users of your hack. Understanding their realities and constraints before you build any solution will go a long way towards successful implementation.

   Most hackathons happen far away from the humanitarian issues they hope to assist. Hence the makers are usually disconnected with the ground realities.

For example: building smart phone solutions for parts of the world which don’t have access to internet or smart phones, or assuming that refugees are poor and disconnected.

   Sometimes it is possible these solutions (even with good research) are not used as intended. In such cases, trust in the creativity of users to find alternative uses for your tool, and focus on the basic needs being met, rather than your solution being what gets people there.

For example: one can create sanitation solutions of remote parts of India only to be later used to store food grains by the local population.

  1. Post hackathon :

   Post hackathon, it is a good practise to encourage all participants to contribute to the hackathon through the following

  • Writing a blog post
  • Releasing the source-code of the hack through open source license
  • Collaborating on the projects with a fellow hackers
  • Working with the winning teams improve their hack further
  • Work with users on open licensing for data

At the end of the day you want your hackathon to empower, inspire, and connect, so that your participants feel they have learned and contributed to something larger than themselves. When you don’t keep everything above in mind you are not contributing to building trust between different communities.

This post was created with inputs from : Chinmayi S K, Willow Brugh, Nisha Thompson, Srinivas Kodali, Zara Rahman and Rishi Bhatnagar