Creating Technology for Social Change

Hackathons don’t solve problems

Qualcomm, a company known for their manufacture of semiconductors, stopped by the Center for Civic Media a few weeks ago to interview people about hackathons. Today, they released the video, which features Nathan Matias and I:

Thankfully, all of the words that I say on the screen in the video are words that I actually said. But the edit and framing message that they present is literally the opposite of what I said in the interview.

Here’s what I actually said: hackathons don’t solve problems – and certainly not big problems. The big problems are big for a reason. They’re hard, bordering on intractable, and people are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single hackathon could ever do. There is nothing magical about putting a bunch of technologists and creatives in a room which will suddenly solve disasters, world crises, the economy, or anything else.

Hurricane Hackers didn’t provide hurricane relief

The projects that hurricane hackers worked on were worthwhile, but they were not beneficial to hurricane victims in the immediate aftermath of the storm. A map of livestreams showing storm damage is interesting for gawkers outside of the affected areas, and can help convey a sense of the impact and importance of the damage to others. But when the storm is bearing down on top of you, you have no use for (and probably no ability to watch) a webcam feed.  Other Hurricane Hackers projects included a memorial for hurricane victims (valuable to people after the fact, but developed primarily after the hackathon), and a couch surfing coordination tool which never launched.

The project that should be congratulated for having a direct and tangible impact on helping people on the ground during and after the storm is Occupy Sandy, which did a remarkable job organizing relief efforts.  Occupy Sandy had FEMA coming to them for advice when they saw how effective their ground game was. But Occupy Sandy was not the product of a hackathon – and more importantly, it involves a lot of boots-on-the-ground work.  They have continued to provide ongoing relief and support to storm victims to this day.  This is unfortunately a more boring story, as it doesn’t involve fast easy solutions through techno utopias.  But it’s a more important story: it demonstrates the power of mutual aid, community organizing, hard work, and political activism.

What are hackathons good for?

If I come across as strongly anti-hackathon, it’s because of my desire to counteract the boosterism in Qualcomm’s edit. Hackathons can spur creativity, can inspire a concerted amount of development effort on a focused project for a short period of time, and can increase attention to a critical issue. For people who feel disaffected and hopeless, a hackathon can rekindle a sense of creativity and possibility.  But the tangible products of a hackathon (hardware, software) are rarely of adequate quality for real-world use.

Every project I’ve started in a hackathon (a visualization of tweet links, a visualization of survey results, and even the livestream map the video mentions) have required a substantial amount of development time after the hackathon in order to be usable.  And as interesting as these projects may be, none of them will revolutionize the world or solve major problems.  If they help, it’s through their situation in the context of a much larger network of people and effort.

Interdisciplinary mixing bowls aren’t new, they’ve been used to inspire creativity and new development for decades.  Fred Turner’s book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” describes how MIT’s Rad Lab mixed physicists, engineers, mathematicians, and others together to develop some of the most transformative technologies of the last hundred years.  But those projects weren’t just a weekend jaunt; they involved years, in some cases decades, of hard work by dedicated people, along with enormous allocations of resources from the government.

In short: Hackathons can be fun, they can inspire new ideas, they can break disciplinary boundaries. But if they are “Tech’s Answer to Big Problems”, we’re in trouble.