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Hackathons to Save the Planet
By Mark Milian
November 21, 2012 3:49 PM EST

On Nov. 9, 40 software developers convened at the San Francisco office of design firm Ideo to take part in a Silicon Valley ritual called a hackathon. During the eight-hour coding session, engineers fueled by pizza and beer tapped away on laptops, while designers scrawled plans on whiteboards. This wasn’t a crash project to develop the next killer app. It was Hack Sanitation, a quest to help educate people in Ghana about the public health risks posed by the nation’s bathroom shortage.

After visiting the West African nation two years ago, Jocelyn Wyatt, the executive director for Ideo’s nonprofit arm Ideo.org, organized the hackathon to develop software that would let people in the city of Kumasi report public sightings of human waste via text message or Facebook, then create digital maps to identify risky locations.

Hackathons are no longer the exclusive province of Valley companies such as Facebook, which used crash coding sessions to develop its chat feature, a profile design called Timeline, and the iconic “Like” button. Now lawyers, chefs, and animal lovers are adopting the same “move fast and break things” ethos to create projects quickly on a small budget. “There is a broader set of companies and people engaged in hackathons,” says Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University. “A small group of people in a fairly short period of time can actually build something fairly impressive.”

On Nov. 17, the Petcentric Hackathon in Los Angeles aimed to build products “that help people engage with their pets.” That included a website for sharing pictures and an electronic collar that tracks a dog’s heart rate and step count. That same weekend, 100 students at Georgetown University, and separately kids at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, worked on software applications such as a campus events calendar to benefit their schools. On Dec. 7, Hack//Meat will ask New York-based software developers and culinary experts to develop ways to improve cattle ranch efficiency. The ticketing website Eventbrite lists more than 100 other hackathons scheduled before the end of the year. Programmers flock to these software jam sessions to network and enjoy the rush involved with building something quickly, says Brian Kennish, whose startup Disconnect, which makes Web browser plug-ins, recently organized a hackathon for legal professionals to simplify websites’ privacy policies.

Still, hackathons may not have a lasting appeal outside the tech industry, says Ryan Carson, whose consulting firm Carsonified has organized several of them, including one for Twitter’s Chirp developer conference in 2010. Volunteering to devote an entire weekend to a project, he says, appeals mainly to younger people without familial obligations or other social responsibilities. “What’s happening is really about companies preying on the young and the optimistic,” says Carson. “These guys are like, ‘Let’s buy pizza and beer and treat developers like animals.’ It’s really weird, and I don’t think it’s healthy at all.”

Ideo’s Wyatt, though, argues that the events can have long-term benefits. “Hackathons create a level of excitement that drives continued engagement” with a cause, she says. As Hack Sanitation drew to a close, participants presented near-working prototypes of a Facebook app and a text message reporting service for Ghana’s residents. Much of the work should translate into the prototype it deploys in Kumasi. But the tight deadlines inevitably resulted in coding errors, and Ideo had to rewrite some of the software, which defeats the purpose of the free labor, says Hain-Lee Hsueh, a developer at education tech startup Goalbook who attended the Hack Sanitation event. Moments before presenting his “crap map” to the room, Hsueh noticed a typo. “I spelled Ideo wrong. It says ‘Idea.’ Whoops.”

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