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Technology as a Force For Good

13 September 2017 at 3:40 pm
Wendy Williams
Hackers are using technology as a force for good to help not for profits solve their “Goldilocks problems”.

Wendy Williams | 13 September 2017 at 3:40 pm


Technology as a Force For Good
13 September 2017 at 3:40 pm

Hackers are using technology as a force for good to help not for profits solve their “Goldilocks problems”.

Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is holding a hackathon around the country for purpose-driven organisations to give volunteer technologists social challenges to solve.

The search is now on for charities and social enterprises who want to bring their problems to the table with applications open for potential changemakers to take part in the next round of hackathons in November.

RHoK Australia community manager Cal Foulner told Pro Bono News the aim was to use the “enthusiasm and ability” of technologists and put it to supporting charities and having social impact.

“We have a big community of hackers who all spend their time building products for Zendesk and DiUS Computing and these kinds of companies and they have amazing technical ability and they have a social conscious, so what RHoK does is create an outlet so that they can use their technical ability as a force for good,” Foulner said.

He said they were looking for organisations with “Goldilocks problems”.

Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon“What we refer to as ‘Goldilocks problems’ are basically problems that are big enough that they are worth solving and will get our hackers excited to be a part of, and motivated to solve, but then also small enough that they fit into a hackathon model and are sort of achievable to make a serious dent in a weekend,” he said.

“Hackathons are really good at somethings, and other things not so good at. So if you have a really clearly defined problem that is the right size and scope then it is amazing what you can get done in a weekend and that’s really important so that everyone leaves with a sense of achievement because they have tackled some big problem but they’ve also got it done rather than just chipping 10 per cent into a start of a project.”

Foulner said he encouraged anyone interested to apply and not “to be scared by the idea of a hackathon”.

“I would encourage people… even if they’re not sure or they don’t have a specific challenge in mind, but they can see a number of things that need to be solved, just reach out and come and grab a coffee with me and have a bit of a conversation about what they do and where they want to go,” he said.

“It is a really great opportunity not just to solve a problem but also to get something done and build something that will drive efficiency in their organisation that has never been in the scope of their budget. Even if it is a nice to have we want to talk to them about how we can make things more efficient for them.”

Foulner said the initiative was supported by a “bunch of mainly tech companies” which allowed them to offer the hackathons to changemakers for free.

He said it was a rare opportunity for organisations to solve their tech problems at no cost and also to learn “a whole lot about software development and technology” in the process.

“We have a big education component at the beginning of the RHoK hackathon, and a lot of what we do at the beginning is explain what is possible and explain terms like lean and agile and explain what software development is and how it will all work, and that sort of thing,” he said.

“And I think that is one of the most valuable things we do and we haven’t even started hacking yet, because I think, and it is a gross generalisation, but the tech literacy of a lot of the charities that we see is pretty low and a lot of things are being done in a really labour intensive way and everything is on spreadsheets and nothing is automated and emails are all written by hand and I think technology allows the same results but in a much more efficient way in the charity sector.”

Previous changemakers involved in the hackathons include Accessible Australia, the 20Squared project and Pinchapoo.

Foulner said one of his favourites was a lady called Jennifer McConachy who worked in the Family Finding unit at Berry Street.

“She has really become part of the RHoK family, because she has come back three hackathons in a row,” he said.

“Basically she has developed a platform so that when a child comes into their care they can basically search the database and search online and search through any records they can find on the internet and through their own records, to cut down the time it takes them to find a suitable home to go to and stay in.

“So generally they’re looking for someone who is a relative, but it is really hard to do, because often there is not much information about the kid and their support network, so that one has been really successful and she has continued to work on it.”

Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon participantsMcConachy is quoted on the RHoK blog saying she walked away from the hackathon feeling “very inspired and humbled”.

“I have found it really helpful to try to not think of how our organisation and sector do things now, so I am not constrained by current practice or approaches,” McConachy said.

“It is important to have a good sense of what it is you want, but be open to how that need is met.

“My expectations and my mind were absolutely blown away by the interest, dedication, lack of ego, level of expertise and really genuine friendliness of the people at the hackathon.”

Foulner said the experience also showed that while hackathons were often associated with start-ups, charities of any size could benefit.

“For a bigger charity, although they generally have more money than say more of a startup social enterprise or charity, it is a really good way to find a specific problem that doesn’t have any internal funding and find an internal changemaker who is really passionate about solving this problem and it allows them to prove the case for taking it on and getting funding internally from their big organisation,” he said.

He said he hoped RHoK could help solve problems for organisations around the world.

“One thing that is unique about RHoK, is that we are completely open sources so everything that we develop is under a creative commons license and we list it on our website that anyone can access it,” he said.

“It is crazy to think that one charity solving a problem in say Queensland has completely different set of challenges and technical needs to charities solving a similar problem in Melbourne.

“So technology is inherently scalable and transferable so that’s one side of it that really appeals to me that we could be solving problems all around the world by solving problems in our own backyard.”

The next hackathons will be taking place in Melbourne, Sydney, Western Sydney, Brisbane, Ipswich, and Bendigo on the weekend of 25 and 26 November.

Applications to be a changemaker are open now until 6 October. See the RHoK website for more information.  

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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