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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Charities and Hackathons

Someone asked an interesting question at a charity-focused hackathon I was at last year - along the lines of "This is the third year we've held this event to help Charities, why aren't more of them here with projects?". From what I've seen of (medium to large) charities, the answer would be along the lines of "the technology problems that charities have to deal with can't easily be tackled by a hackathon". Technology problems in charities tend to be things like:

  • Needing to modify existing systems to handle new initiatives
  • Correctly piping data from one system to the other
  • Bringing order to ad-hoc systems that have evolved in Excel
Those sorts of problems are hard to take to a hackathon setting because so much knowledge of existing systems, processes and data is needed to handle them properly. Whereas a good hackathon project is generally one that mashes data from X with APIs from Y and Z to make a new self contained app.

Hackathons are great for generating experimental new apps, but Charities are not well placed to take advantage of experimental initiatives. I've seen some great prototypes get built, but they rarely seem to be picked up by charities. I think its probably because decision makers in large charities can't generally divert time and funds from established programmes at short notice to plough them into experimental ventures.This is compounded by the 'post hackathon dispersion' effect - once the hackathon is over and the pizza boxes are cleared away, the teams tend to disperse and its hard to keep up momentum.

Hence, despite Hackathons (bunch of smart people with effort to donate) and Charities (worthy causes in need of help) being - on paper - a great thing to combine together, I havent seen it done in a really integrated way yet. Charity hackathons are great for sharing ideas and trying things out, but there's still some figuring out to do, about how can we can harness that effort for maximum lasting benefit.

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