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Published on December 18th, 2012 | by EJC

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Coding for Humanity: The Rise of New Age Hacktivism

An interesting movement is happening in the world. A recent post from The Next Web pointed out that a new activism or ‘Geektivism’, a movement led by techies to save the world by using technology, is blooming. This is, however, not a new phenomenon. Since 2009, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), a series of hackathons aiming to make the world a better place have been solving humanitarian problems, which are identified by stakeholders such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross, by using technology.

Why collaboration over competition?: “Problems facing the world today are so complex that no single entity can tackle them alone. Working together will bring different perspectives and result greater understanding in order to respond with effective solutions.” – Chad Badiyan, SecondMuse.

What started off as a single hackathon, this global initiative has grown and led more than 170 hackathons, involving over 5500 coders, programmers, designers, and innovators from more than 30 countries in the world. These hackathons are volunteer-based and typically held over the weekend in cities not just limited to tech capitals like San Francisco and Berlin in the northern hemisphere, but also up and coming cities like Nairobi, Bangalore and Lima.

Backed by a number of global stakeholders such as Google, Microsoft, NASA and the World Bank, RHoK’s hackathons operate at a grassroots level and are organised by the local organisers and partners who identify ‘problems’ they encounter when working for good causes.

The website of RHoK gives an overview of identified problems and solutions.

During the first week of December 2012, over 1000 volunteer hackers united and joined the biggest global hackathon that took place in more than 30 different locations in the world. For Maarten Cautreels, the core organiser of the Brussels event, his first encounter with the RHoK’s activism was during his internship in Silicon Valley. “We actually just wanted to get into the Google building and one of the RHoK events was taking place there, so we joined”, says the Java developer at De Persgroep, the biggest newspaper publisher in Belgium.

He and his friends took part in the hackathon that aimed to connect food banks so that they could make sure the leftovers were being handed over to other organisations. While the practical solution could not be fully implemented at the time, the idea of helping good cause projects like this stuck with him strongly. “IT can definitely help people”, says a young innovator who led fully fledged solutions to the problems being identified by a local partner, Bond Zonder Naam at the December hackathon.

Maarten Cautreels, the organiser of the RHoK hackathon in Brussels.

Through partnerships with local and global organisations, RHoK has successfully raised awareness in many humanity-related fields ranging from disaster management to human rights issues. Today, local communities are empowered to address their problems globally, providing a platform to voice their issues instead of abandoning them.

Chad Badiyan, a facilitator from SecondMuse points out two challenges that need special attention. One of the challenges is how to create a good, well-defined problem that can lead into developing a solution for real-world impact. Another issue is how to make the initiative sustainable so that the prototypes are used by the partner organisations and users. This is the reason behind the launch of the RHoK Sustainability Project, which involves partners like Geeks without Bounds who identify the projects that have the potential to result in a meaningful solution in the long run and add resources by providing mentorship to support the hackers’ community.

A video about the Peace Corps Innovation Challenge at the RHoK hackathon in Atlanta. 

So what is in it for journalists? The RHoK is always looking for partner organisations who want their problems solved for humanitarian causes. During emergencies like natural disasters and political uprisings, journalists encounter technical problems that were identified in our earlier post and this strongly committed hackers’ community can help media professionals in bringing about solutions. In addition to that, there are already a number of projects being worked on by the RHoK that can be useful for disaster reporting. For more about the recent projects being worked on, take a look at this page, and don’t miss the opportunity to connect with local RHoKers at the upcoming local events.

Photo: marsmet481

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