There’s something about the fantastic Saving The Hackathon blog post on TokBox, that gets to the crux of the cognitive dissonance around hackathons. People expect the next technological tool or application that will change the world to come out of these. Sometimes they do, but rarely. (Insert side-rant about the expectation of perfectly-formed tools, objects, or people appearing from anywhere; as specifically articulated in my comments to this blog post). As I’m sure we’ve talked about before, I deeply believe that technologies only amplify human intent. I have yet to see anything that contradicts this. When it comes to disaster and humanitarian response hackathons, they get a lot of press. But what is the tangible output? What expectations can we set for ourselves and attendees?

So far as tools which can immediately be deployed in the field, not much. Not to say it doesn’t happen at all, but it is rare. The amount of forethought and digging which must happen to find the specific pain point which tech can help ease or automate is not something the affected population or the responders really have time to deal with while they are also doing response. Even when something appropriate is built, you have to worry about dissemination, training, and failure modes. Thus why the most useful things come out of things like Random Hacks of Kindness and CrisisCamps are awareness building and warm fuzzy feelings.

Yes, both warm fuzzies and awareness are legitimate, useful things. Too often, as technologists, we are separated from our world. We spend time behind screens, acutely aware of crises and issues but detached from the response and ownership of those situations. Civic media is an exceptional example of how technology has helped to close that detachment rather than deepen it. I see the same reclamation of involvement at the heart of the maker movement also at the heart of digital humanitarian work. No, this is not something we can leave up to some organization that we don’t know about, that isn’t accountable to us, and that doesn’t have mechanisms for listening to the very people it claims to serve. This is something we must do ourselves, calling upon the institutional knowledge and resources of those large organizations as needed. The things we create, which work, including processes, need to be codified. Sometimes into consensual hierarchies, sometimes into bureaucracy (both of which can be useful, as painful as that might seem). These assumptions of interaction allow us to operate at the next higher level, just as a language allows us to converse more easily, and a shared word set (for a discipline, say) allows us to have even more specific and deep conversation.

rhythmic tapping will solve everything!

rhythmic tapping solves everything

And on the institutionalized side of another false dichotomy, the awareness and warm fuzzies remove the mysticism of tech. People in traditional sectors all too often see applications and networks as some ruby slippers, easily deployed and perfectly aligned if you just knew the right phrase. And the same fear that goes along with a belief in such power, the misunderstanding of a very real (but also not ultimate) power. It’s not just developers who think the thing they build will be the next big thing – it’s also the people in response-based orgs not knowing that they need one section of a workflow automated, not a geotagged photo sharing platform (we already have those).

So response hackathons are a great place for the amplification of human intent and desire to assist the rest of humanity. That’s great. Now – how do you make those intentions deployable? IE, now that you’ve had the cancer walk, who’s doing the research and implementation? That’s a smaller group of people, who are willing to take the risk of plunging into work that doesn’t pay like the rest of the software world. That’s a small group of people who are willing to suffer the heart break and soul crushing that seeing the horrors of the world can cause, in order to see your tiny steps (maybe) make way against that. That’s an even smaller group of people who also understand how to support and care for themselves while they do that work, to find sustained income (sometimes from the people you are wanting to help most – which is still a cognitively sticky bucket for me), so they can keep going. And the fight isn’t just to make things better, it’s also about how that exists in the current world, with policy and with culture.

Response hackathons absolutely have a place in this system of engagement. But it’s one part. Without the continuation programs like Geeks Without Bounds and SocialCoding4Good, we all just pat ourselves on the back and go home. We start to wonder if it’s even worth going to the next one. But accomplishment takes hard work, and sometimes working on the fiddly bits. And that means deep learning and conversations with the user. That means advance work, and continued work. Which I believe you can do. Don’t just create in response to things going pear-shaped. Build things to better understand them. Create to make the world better. Make with purpose. The disasters and obstacles we face in the near future are unpredictably complicated and massive. We have no way to train for them. But we also have massive untapped resources in the sharing of our brains and hearts, brought out when we create, and share, and build.

It is with all this in mind that I am excited about how Geeks Without Bounds is starting to look at how we will interact with OpenHatch, in an effort to contribute to (and learn from) the open source community. It is with all this in mind that I am excited about DataWind, and AppsToEmpower, and shipping low-cost tablets into developing area pre-loaded with useful tools. It is with these things in mind that I am excited about the continuation of EveryoneHacks, and how it creates space for new creators.

2 thoughts on “Expectations

  1. I’d love to make some time to chat with you about Caravan Studios, a new division of techSoup.org, a 501 c(#) nonprofit org, based in SF, CA.

    We are in a pre-launch state, but working on some grants that will include an app-service for domestic violence victims and a few hackathons for social benefit that will produce apps for the public good. Your thinking influenced our founder and CEO, Marnie Webb. Great article, and I look forward to connecting with you!

  2. I can’t express how useful connected tablets would have been for the responders of Hurricane Sandy in NYC.

    It wasn’t the app, software, or cool twitter feed parsing app that would have made the difference, it was the hardware. An investment in hardware and infrastructure (wifi/cell towers, etc.) would have enabled the ad-hoc networks to work at a much higher level of coordination and effectiveness.

    Perhaps we need to stop trying to make the next new thing and focus on the real work, user testing and feedback, bug squashing, etc. There are so many projects out there that could really be useful if a bunch of talented people got together for a few hours and hacked away…

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