Bellwethr Magazine

Goodwill Hacking

Not all hackers want to steal from you. The latest generation of programmers seeks solutions for social good.


As a student at Rutgers University, Mike Swift was on track to attend law school and wanted nothing to do with computer science — until he needed money and started a programming job for a film company. But even that didn’t turn him. Programming wasn’t cool, and Swift knew it. But when his roommate ratted him out, Swift’s other housemates didn’t think his secret coding knowledge was uncool. Instead, one of them dragged him to HackNY, a hackathon started at New York University in 2010. When Swift came out the next day, he forgot all about being a lawyer — he was a programmer.

“It’s absolutely an unreal experience,” says Swift, now 24 years old and co-founder of Major League Hacking — an organization that helps college students organize hackathons. “You can describe it in a million ways, but when you actually go and you see the energy and what the people do, it literally changes your life.”

And sometimes hackathons — events that put tech-savvy people in a room with a lot of caffeine, very little sleep, and 24 to 48 hours to make something awesome — change other people’s lives, too, like the hackathon Ashley Qian, a 20-year-old Duke University senior, helped organize in March.

“You can describe it in a million ways, but when you actually go and you see the energy and what the people do, it literally changes your life,” Swift says.

With the tagline “code for good,” HackDuke aimed to solve problems in three areas: inequality, health and wellness, and education. According to Qian, more than 300 hackers crowded into Gross Hall on Duke’s campus, formed teams, met with nonprofit experts, brainstormed ideas, and spent the next 24 hours creating hardware and software in one of the three impact areas. Qian says the event resulted in 43 hacks, the name hackers give to hackathon projects. Two of those are now in production stages for an upcoming nonprofit that will help homeless shelters handle paperwork.

When Qian visited the homeless shelter after HackDuke, she noticed disheveled papers on the front desk. Binders on top of binders recorded who checked in, who checked out, who was in what bed, who was a new visitor, and who was a returning visitor. She walked through the hallway, past a row of doors leading to bedrooms, and into the administration office. As she talked to the manager and volunteers about her plans, she could see their excitement. They led her back to the front desk, back to those messy papers, and pointed out all the binders that will disappear once the paperwork goes online.

Through building hacks that help nonprofits like the homeless shelter, HackDuke and other hackathons for social good give new meaning to the word “hacker.” According to Joël Franusic, a 31-year-old organizer at SuperHappyDevHouse, an online tech event planning organization, the term hacker originally meant a person who playfully uses technology. But when a law passed in the ’80s restricted actions like logging into a computer that wasn’t yours, Franusic says “a lot of hackers got caught up in breaking that law, and news media were using that term pejoratively” — giving “hacker” the connotation most people know today.

Jon Gottfried, a historian-turned-hacker who also co-founded Major League Hacking, says Yahoo Inc. organized the first modern hackathon in 2006. Since then, the coder community has reclaimed the word and uses events like hackathons to teach people its real meaning. “To me, it’s just expressing yourself creatively through technology,” Gottfried says. Swift agrees and says people “don’t go to hackathons to break into banks or steal credit cards.”

In fact, hackers like Qian do the opposite. Instead of using her hacking skills to steal, Qian and the other HackDuke organizers donated $2,000  from the event to charities. And now, months after HackDuke, Qian continues to donate her time and hacking skills to a homeless shelter near Duke. She’s working on combining two hacks called Bullhorn and Frontdesk into one Web-based nonprofit organization.

“Many homeless shelters currently use pen, paper, and binders to keep track of their day-to-day operations,” Qian says. “With an easy-to-use interface and a database handy, it’ll be exponentially easier to teach new volunteers as well as be able to analyze the information.”

“People don’t go to hackathons to break into banks or steal credit cards,” Swift says.

It will also help them keep important information organized. The homeless shelter in Durham, Qian says, does bed checks every night at 7 p.m. If someone has a reservation and isn’t in bed by then, volunteers won’t hold it. But sometimes, people have to go out for important reasons like doctor’s appointments. They’re given a slip of paper, but sometimes they lose the paper. And sometimes volunteers from previous shifts forget to tell their colleagues if a bed should be held.

Qian hopes the nonprofit, called Umbrella  for now, will help the homeless shelter in Durham — and eventually shelters across the country — keep track of information like this. Umbrella started beta testing at the Durham homeless shelter in June and Qian plans for it to be fully functional by the end of her senior year at Duke.

After HackDuke, sponsors from the homeless shelter asked the teams who worked on both Bullhorn and Frontdesk if the shelter could use their hack. Both teams reached out to Qian, worried that their hacks were simple prototypes and not stable. Though neither Bullhorn nor Frontdesk were originally her projects, Qian now spends at least two hours, four days a week working on them. When she heard their worries, she decided to“take a stab at refining the product.”

If Qian didn’t take it on, Umbrella would have followed most hackathon hacks and disappeared once those 24 hours were up. Although most hacks never see production, Swift says hackathons — and particularly social good hackathons — are beneficial because they force hackers to find innovative solutions to real problems.

But Qian pushes for more than ideas. “We’re trying to inspire the developers who participate in the event to be able to open source it,” she says. “[That way] other people can work on it or pass it off to someone else who can actually bring it to life.”


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