Hacks for Good should be about doing good, not just feeling good — Kieron Kirkland

A picture from our Fuse hack day, discussing different user journeys

Whatever people’s motivation for running or getting involved in hack, I think it’s time everyone admitted to something. Hacks don’t solve social problems.

I’ve run, taken part in, funded and hosted a lot of ‘hacks for good’ with some brilliant people. I’ve seen amazing bits of tech being developed through some great events. And equally also some truly cringeworthy things applauded as a ‘solution’ to a social problems.

Hacks can be a great way to digitally brainstorm ideas, or for people to develop skills. If you’re running one, do it for these reasons. But if you think running one hack will change the world, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. At best it will bring beneficial experience for the hackers and generate new possibilities, at worst it will suck resource and talent away from other areas that really need them.

If you’re thinking of running a hack, great stuff. But make sure you avoid these pitfalls:

Problem — most hacks occur in isolation.

Hacks need to have people there with some understanding of the social problem. Hackers can’t be expected to come with this. So (good) hack organisers invite some expert speakers to share their experience about a social issue, and hopefully mentor during the process. However, more often, experts are parachuted in for the panel and then leave. This means that hackers end up solving problems that don’t need to be solved, wasting their valuable talents and time. This is compounded by the fact that by virtue of locking everyone in a room for two days, one very crucial audience is missing from almost every hack — users. This is at odds with the human-centred design processes that are central to most effective digital product development for marginalised groups.

So, hack well: Partner with existing organisations working in the social area you’re targeting, and work out some very specific problems for the hack teams to address ahead of time. Get experts and end users of the potential products in the room throughout the process to collaborate and work with the teams. Geeklist’s #hack4good is a great example of doing this well — they create strong connections with nonprofit partners during the build up and running of their hacks to ensure that the work done on hacks is centred on real problems that need addressing. Equally Founders and Coders run collaborative hacks with social sector organisations where domain experts are constantly present to help steer the design and product development. This means that things that emerge from the hacks are addressing identified challenges.

Problem — Hacks are seen as an end in themselves.

This is a colossal mistake and means that generally 99.9% of ideas, no matter how good, disappear after a hack. This is especially the case if you are working with professionals. Devs have day jobs to go back to. I’ve literally tried to pay hack teams their day rates to develop products after a hack and it has failed. Not because of a lack of interest or goodwill, but because people have lives to get on with. Hacks are often set up as a short term event, and that’s the way they stay if no one has the remit or resource to continue the idea.

So, hack well: Partner with groups who are interested in taking the idea forwards. This could be existing organisations (corporate or social), accelerators or funders. Identify where the ideas go after the hack — who can fund or support them? If you don’t have a next step, the ideas won’t go anywhere! At CAST we run hacks as part of our nonprofit accelerator programme, Fuse, to give the teams a burst of technical development after a period of design. It means that all the work from the hack feeds into the next version of a product.

Problem — Hacks try to ‘solve’ social problems.

The way some hacks are pitched leads people to think they can solve a massive intractable social problem in a weekend. Most social problems are complex, messy and big with many, many interdependencies. You can’t solve them in a weekend. That’s why we still have the same social problems we’ve had for hundreds of years. Believe me, if things could be solved in a weekend by some clever people, that would have happened by now.

So, hack well: Focus on solving specific, discrete problems. Don’t go thinking you’re going to change the world immediately. It will be a waste of your attendees’ amazing talent. Instead, focus on developing sustainable propositions that can be adopted by existing organisations working in the space. Better yet, don’t try to build something new at all — use your talent to push forwards projects and issues that are out there already. Otherwise, unless you’ve got a heap of cash behind you, your lovely new service idea will die the minute you finish that last slice of pizza. Datakind address this issue brilliantly with a great model. They work intensively with nonprofits before and after the hack to identify very specific and focused problems that can be usefully worked on by their data science volunteers during the intensive hack days.

Hacks aren’t the only way to do good

The real problem with bad hacks though, is not all these things. It’s the opportunity cost. All this technical expertise and good will could often be used in a lot of other more effective — and often more rewarding — ways.

If you really want to use technology to help solve social problems, don’t assume a hack is the answer. It’s like thinking a party hat will protect you from a missile strike. Instead, get your technical friends directly engaged with people and organisations already working on the issue and find ways they can work alongside each other. That could be a massive NGO or a tiny grassroots community business. Your technical teams will actually find this far more rewarding in the long term.

For example, one of the biggest differences someone with digital experience could make to a charity would be to become a trustee (there’s a well documented gap in board-level expertise of digital technology among nonprofits, which is massively impeding the social sector). Or if that’s a bit much, try to get them involved in some short term mentoring of a member of staff in an organisation and teaching them how to code. Equally a small social enterprise might benefit greatly from being included in your company’s supply chain. If you’re a big company, even your marketing reach could be enormously helpful to a social organisation by a well placed tweet. These are just some of the many ways you could help that isn’t a hack.

Often, the most effective help is not sexy or shiny and it might not be wrapped up in a handy weekend. But it will make a real difference. And the benefits of this will last a lot longer than just feeling good.

This blog first appeared on Digital Agenda.