Five Reasons to Use a Hackathon for Social Good


Source: Flickr user Stuhacking

A hackathon is a hacking marathon. And despite what the media tells us, a hacking marathon isn’t necessarily a 12-hour binge of digital mischief involving ATM heists or misfit teens wreaking havoc on big corporations. In fact, hackathons have done a ton of social good.

“Hacking” actually applies to the act of tinkering with existing tools to innovate and provide solutions that disrupt the status quo. This includes everything from computer programmers who develop open source software, to the Malawi teenager who jerry-rigged a windmill to power his family’s home. Burrell Smith, engineer of the first Mac computer, famously said “Hackers can do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter.”

In recent years, hackathons have paired software developers, designers and technologists with educators, musicians, comedians, lawyers and bureaucrats to create new apps, new hardware and new businesses. These coding jam sessions — lasting between a day to a week — force participants to complete an entire project. From conception to building a working prototype, hackathoners, in a whirlwind of creativity, simply get sh** done.

It stands to reason that organizations might want to consider harnessing this creative energy for their social cause. Hosting a hackathon or app contest, virtually or in-person, can yield a lot of benefits.

They can:

1. Spur innovation and inspiration by bringing new ideas and new perspectives to your cause.

2. Rally together a community of do-ers, activating increased participation from your base supporters as well as bringing newcomers to the fold. They can become champions for your cause.

3. Spark interest for your cause among the public whose attention is drawn in by the spectacle itself and is excited by all the possibilities.

4. Make your work more effective and more efficient by allowing teams to re-purpose/repackage your data.

5. Solve the problem…or at least put a dent in it. Hackathons aim to produce practical solutions. The products they produce will certainly have some meaningful impact, however big or small.

Civic hackathons, like NYC Big Apps and the White House Open Data Hackathon, already serve as proof of these benefits. They outline a specific societal problem — mass transit, healthcare, school reform — and challenge participants to devise a means to address it. Hackers are often given data sets to work with, prizes to incentivize and limitless energy drinks to keep them working.

The results have been nothing short of impressive. The go-to NYC subway navigation app Embark NYC, which plans commutes by integrating maps with train schedules, won a virtual hackathon sponsored by the MTA. Endpoint won Denver’s Code for Communities hackathon and provides users with neighborhood information like median housing prices, demographics and crime rates. Vibrantly wowed judges at the Food Hackathon in San Francisco by enabling smartphone users to identify healthy foods based on color. Music educators can now use Exemplify, which beat out 40 other apps to win the Music Ed Hack in New York, by quickly building lesson plans from any song. The possibilities seem endless.

So consider issuing the challenge. Ask the bright, creative minds out there to make something that helps all of us live a little bit better. Hack the planet!

Other resources to help get you started:

  • How Hackathons Work Infographic: Wired Magazine breaks it all down for you in graphic form.
  • ChallengePost: This online platform allows organizations to post app challenges and hackathons. They partner mainly with municipalities and government agencies and are one of the main partners for NYC Big Apps.
  • Hacker League: This service handles planning and organization for your hackathon, from registration to app submissions.
  • Changemakers: This online platform partners with organizations to host social innovation challenges.
  • OpenIDEO: The famous design firm IDEO partners with organizations to host design challenges that encourage collaboration from online users to develop innovative solutions.
Brian Redondo

About Brian Redondo

Brian serves as Digital Project Manager at the Ad Council, where he oversees the development of websites, mobile apps, and digital games. Prior to joining the Ad Council, he cut his chops in digital media with the 2012 Democratic National Convention and Obama for America. After hours, he moonlights as a budding tech entrepreneur, a wannabe documentary filmmaker, and a perennial comic book nerd. Find him on Google+ Twitter


  1. says

    Hi Brian

    Great blog post, I work a ChallengePost who you mention above – helping people use our platform and access our community for hackathons.

    You might also be interested in adding the National Day of Civic Hacking to your list of recent examples. Several of the sites used ChallengePost – as we make ChallengePost available for free to hackathons.

    Have a look at the link below for a great example of a civic hackathon:


  2. says

    Hey Brian,

    Interesting post, I really enjoyed it. I’ve actually a hackathon coming up on the 10th August that takes your ideas to the next step.
    We’re taking the techniques of a hackathon ie bringing all the best talent together to work on a project for a concentrated period of time. Except we’re moving away from purely technical solutions and are creating fundraising campaigns.

    Have a look here
    or on my blog



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