Tips for designing effective hackathons for social impact

Participants at a hackathon. Photo by: JD Lasica / CC BY-NC

SAN FRANCISCO — Over the weekend, the United Nations Development Programme co-hosted a hackathon in Beijing, with the aim of “decoding” the Sustainable Development Goals. It brought together a group with skillsets ranging from coding to app-building to data analysis, teaming up with the organization iamtheCODE, which helps prepare girls and women primarily from Africa for success in the digital future; the organization also took the lead on making sure that girls and women made up half the group at the hackathon. The hackathon was part of a larger Geek for Good open design challenge led by the U.N. and sponsored by the technology giant Baidu, and frontrunners won spots in local incubation programs, mentoring and access to funding sources.

Hackathons, as with much of the innovation movement, are being borrowed and translated to the development context.

— Jay Corless, senior director of innovation at the U.N. Foundation

“In my view a hackathon plays a specific role within the larger ‘taking solutions to scale’ trajectory,” Jay Corless, senior director of innovation at the U.N. Foundation, told Devex. “Hackathons — as with much of the innovation movement — are being borrowed and translated to the development context, so there has been some trial and error. We often see hackathons used as idea iteration exercises, which I think is fine, but there are better ways to use them knowing what we know now.”

The Beijing hackathon took place just days after a 1,000 person innovation lab in Denmark called UNLEASH, which brought together entrants from 129 countries, plus experts and judges including Corless, for 10 days to develop solutions for the SDGs. Hackathons — organized events in which individuals or teams are competing to create prototypes to solve particular problems — have extended beyond technology companies into a wider range of sectors. But as a growing number of events draw on a tradition in web development to bring new ideas to global development, Devex checked in with experts on how to organize effective hackathons when the goals are as ambitious as ending poverty in all its forms by 2030.

Insights from the largest private hackathon

Microsoft, the Seattle-based technology company, is behind the largest private hackathon on the planet. Last month, 18,000 employees from 80 countries came together for three days and created more than 4,700 projects. Additionally, 3,000 of those employees participated in Hack for Good, which Microsoft Philanthropies organizes, asking employees to use their skills to solve societal problems.

“Microsoft’s ‘//oneweek Hackathon’ started as a way to enable Microsoft employees to use their skills to pursue projects they were interested in,” James Rooney, senior program manager at Microsoft and founder of the hackathon, told Devex via email. “I started Hack for Good as a way to create a community and provide a clear path for employees who were looking for ways to use their skills for social good.”

The first gathering of Hack for Good was about 12 people, which grew to a community of more than 3,800 just two years later, he said. Last year, it produced the Family Finder App, which uses cloud technology to help refugees locate missing loved ones. The idea came from an employee in Denmark who met a boy who fled from Afghanistan and had no way to find his family after he was separated from them.

“What makes it successful is that Hack for Good provides the framework, training and support for employees to pursue the causes and nonprofits they care about. At the end of the day, it’s about helping the employees have a greater impact in the world,” he said.

“The whole point of the hackathon is to encourage our employees to learn by doing,” said Karen Bergin, director of employee engagement at Microsoft Philanthropies. “Working with colleagues on a hack project for problems that are challenging for humankind enables that hands-on learning in real time.”

As the company saw growing interest in Hack for Good, Microsoft Philanthropies tried something new: They reached out to local nonprofits three months before the massive marquee tents were erected on their Seattle playing field. One evening a week, Seattle nonprofits would give five minute pitches to Microsoft employees, articulating the problems they are trying to solve and the types of teams they think would work best. The key is to make sure that expectations are clear on both sides about what a hackathon can and cannot deliver.

“We didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh my Gosh, in one or two days, I will have this solution in a box for this very tough challenge,’” Bergin explained. “We say ‘it’s a brainstorm with people who will bring the best of technology and apply their focused thinking to your problem.”

The hackathon has support from the very top, Bergin continued. CEO Satya Nadella has said he sees hackathons as a way to drive ideas from the bottom up. They also support what he calls a growth mindset, the idea of learning from others, as well as from your own mistakes, as compared to a fixed mindset.

The key is to make sure that expectations are clear on both sides about what a hackathon can and cannot deliver.

Experts in hackathons say factors to consider include whether to offer cash prizes and how big they should be, how to draw sponsors without prioritizing them over attendees, and what other models might be more effective — such as sponsoring contests among startups that are already doing innovative things, or organizing incubators or accelerators to develop startups that could use some support to scale.  

Last week, a network of professionals interested in giving back to the Bay Area hosted what it labeled as a nontechnical hackathon to connect local philanthropists with grant partners. While there is familiarity with the hackathon word, there is also a barrier to entry, Jason Hirschton, CEO of the Full Circle Fund, told Devex. The “nontechnical” framing conveyed the goals of the event, made people without technical skills feel welcome, and managed expectations on both sides, he said.

Another organization working with a play on the hackathon word is Solve, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology that brings together a diverse community of social entrepreneurs, technologists, policymakers and others to crowdsolve global challenges. Solve has labeled their meetups in cities around the world not as hackathons but as solve-a-thons. These are spaces “to form and reshape ideas, to evaluate and reevaluate designs, to prototype and collaborate, and to make new friends.”

The opportunities and challenges for hacking the SDGs

The research team behind Digital Matatus, which used cellphones to create an open source data on a semiformal bus system, organized a hackathon at the University of Nairobi in 2014. Eight teams of four university students came up with ideas for mobile applications, and the young Kenyans were uniquely positioned to come up with ideas, because they were the transit users who would ultimately benefit. But Adam White, the designer behind the initiative, said that in general he feels hackathons spend too much time on production — which in most cases is coding in order to generate an app — and too little time on ideas.

“At a lot of these events I've been to, there can be a lot of great energy, but the lack of context really seems to hurt the ideas,” he told Devex in Aarhus, Denmark, where he was one of 1,000 participants in UNLEASH. “The best events I've been to involve groups of people who know the context really well.”

Especially when it comes to problems as complex as the SDGs, White said he feels that participants of hackathons should be people who are closer to the problems these goals aim to solve, as UNLEASH did with participants from all over the world. But UNLEASH described itself as an innovation lab rather than a hackathon, taking participants through the five phases of the innovation process: problem framing, ideation and idea selection, prototyping and sketching, testing and refining, and implementing. White said he appreciated that the starting point was not too rigid, like many specific data hackathons, because that can make the end results predictable and achieve less than what the organizers were hoping for.

The SDG innovation lab: What can we learn from this 1000-person experiment?

Last week, 1000 young people gathered in Denmark to take part in an intensive innovation lab on the Sustainable Development Goals. Devex reports on the UNLEASH experiment, and what we can take from it.

There are three ways hackathons can be used, and any of them can benefit from using the SDGs as a starting point — but it depends on the goal, said Joseph Gaylord, who formerly researched hackathons in his role as an innovation support officer with the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union. If the goal is to raise awareness, hackathons can get people talking about the SDGs, and the role that people can play in development issues. If the goal is to build new skills, the SDGs can be a useful starting point, but the hackathon has to focus on mentorship, with experts training participants who may go into global development or social business. And finally, if the goal is to advance real solutions for particular development challenges, then the hackathon organizers need structures in place to make sure these solutions for the SDGs outlast the event itself.

“One of the big problems hackathons always run into is it's just 48, 72 hours and then it's done,” he said. “You end up with a lot of great ideas that are dead ends, that aren’t fully developed, that die off.”

Recently, Gaylord joined the team at the Social-Digital Innovation Initiative, which connects problem owners and technology owners, then offers the most promising ideas spots in an incubation program. While this model is necessarily competitive, because not everyone can continue on to the incubator, the question of competition is an important one in any hackathon, he explained. One of the best examples he has found of what hackathons can offer the sector is a three day hackathon in Geneva, where scientists from CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab, come together with NGOs to work on humanitarian technology. The Port Association, which organizes the event, starts with a concrete problem, then runs the hackathon in a noncompetitive fashion, so the goal is not to win but to complete a prototype. This allows teams to collaborate with one another without focusing on a flashy pitch that will impress the judges, meaning the ideas tend to be more about impact than what will come across as sexy in a few minutes onstage.

“If I were to organize hackathons now I would organize them around a pre-existing solution that is encountering one clear obstacle,” said the U.N. Foundation’s Corless. “I would then put out the call for volunteers, organize the hack and then make sure the selected one is embedded into the larger solution.”

He said he sees a need for policy hackathons for health solutions that could benefit from policy boosts; business model hackathons for social innovations that are delivering ground-level impact but not breaking even; or investment hackathons for social innovations that demonstrate impact but do not speak the same language as investors.

“I see a new potential for hackathons around the needs and obstacles of a growing portfolios of phenomenal social innovations that need a boost on their pathway to scale,” he said.

Currently, Corless is working on the Solutions Summit, a side event at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly that describes itself not as a hackathon, but as an annual catalytic gathering. The idea is to highlight projects that are already advancing the SDGs. Selected innovators will give lightning talks to an audience of policymakers, investors and fellow entrepreneurs at an event that aims to crowd resources around mid-level to late-stage social innovations.

“Our solution-makers could eventually benefit from targeted hackathons because each of them are experiencing different obstacles that external resources could eventually help them overcome,” he said.

But while the private sector can hack and iterate what some might call solutions in search of problems, the development sector does not have the same flexibility for show without follow up, given their responsibility to funders and beneficiaries, he explained.

“What doesn’t work is spending lots of resources on a high-profile hackathon without ensuring the selected winners are going to be embedded within the development ecosystem,” he said. “Development professionals are passionate about solving problems and seeing impact. They get very frustrated and lose faith in things that seem to serve only for publicity. Many of the hackathons until now have been potentially good introductory courses to complex social challenges, but have had very little impact on really solving problem.”

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.