Hackathons : Connecting Social Issues & Technology

This weekend, I attended Hack the Planet, a MLH organized hackathon; the grand finale of the 2015–16 hackathon season, Hack the Planet attracted around 500 hackers from across the world, bringing some of the brightest high school and college students together, hacking* at the iconic Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

*a Computer Science jargon that does not mean intentional intrusion via tunnels, malware, or hardware into another computer to exploit the weakness of computer security, but rather, it means exploring the limit of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful.

I was fortunate enough to attend the event as a guest of another competitor, and we made a Pebble safety application, SafeSteps, that was featured on Hack the Planet Twitch live stream. Our app allows users to contact their friends via voice calls and SMS messaging simultaneously in cases of emergency using the simplest action — a single click of their Pebble watch.

This project meant a lot to both of us. At UCLA, my teammate and I were New Student Orientation Advisers, providing mentorship and counseling on coursework, mental health, safety, and expectations for incoming freshmen and transfer students. At our orientation sessions, we constantly emphasized the importance of safety: college is a new environment for many students, and it is our responsibility to let the students understand all the resources they have when it comes to safety. There are already many ways students can reach out for help: UCPD, CSOs, and various other campus security services offer immediate aid on a click of a call. With the already booming community of smartphone-owners and the recent growing community of smartwatch owners, however, new applications could be extremely helpful in simplifying ways to seek help.

That’s where our app, SafeSteps, comes in.

From the beginning, I felt something different about this project. For the first time, I was using all the nitty-gritty coding language I meticulously learned to create something that plays a role in solving social issues. I care about campus safety and mental health and student well-being and sense of community; at the same time, I am pursuing engineering because I wanted to learn about electronics and computer intelligence. For the longest time, I was not connecting these two together. Attending this hackathon made me realize several things:

  1. Social issues and technology are inherently linked,
  2. They can benefit each other, and
  3. I can be a part of it!

A key theme in the hacker community is the idea of disrupt. There are many definitions, but to most of us in this community, to disrupt is to change a long established industry in a way that many have overlooked or were oblivious to. That is how technology grows year after year; that is how we push the realms of scientific understanding; that is how we introduce better & fairer systems in fields such as education, justice, business, etc.

A hackathon is full of disruptors.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: great ideas require resources and work to become concrete. Sometimes, it is difficult to find the components needed to make an idea a reality. Hackathons, however, provide these components for free, and more: workshops, mentors, and of course, food.

That’s why I enjoy attending hackathons. There are no other environments where an individual is purely encouraged to just do. A hackathon is the congregation of ideas, the birthplace of innovations, the open sandbox for everyone to explore, inspire, & learn.

If you are interested in checking out what a hackathon is all about, here is a list of events (organized at many different college campuses) in the next couple of months. See for yourself what I tried to illustrate in this post :)