“Hacking” Can Be A Good Thing

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) needed another set of eyes on a problem. They got more than a dozen at the South by Southwest Eco Conference (SxSW Eco) held in October 2014.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization has been struggling to engage the public to help save monarch butterflies. The butterflies, which engage in a multigenerational migration of up to 3,000 miles, often cannot find the milkweed that their caterpillars depend on. WWF wanted to urge people to plant milkweed in their gardens, and they turned to about a dozen coders and developers at SxSW Eco to help them.

The ensuing 24-hour hackathon produced a mobile app called Monarchy. Monarchy will allow users to input their location and have the app return the most suitable species of milkweed to be grown. Users can upload their photos of monarchs and can search others’ photos for monarchs in their area. The app also mines Instagram and Flickr for photos of monarchs in a user’s proximity.

“This was a great opportunity to engage the public to save the species if people would start planting milkweed in their gardens,” said WWF chief scientist Jon Hoekstra. “We realized this is where we might turn to innovators. Is there a way to harness technology to reach the public about a problem and tell them how they can be part of the solution?”

Hackathons are timed events where programmers and technology developers sit down for 24 hours or more and crank out a piece of technology, often an app or a mobile website. Hackathon structures vary, but they are usually set up in teams who work on specific projects within a short time frame. SxSW Eco’s hackathon lasted 24 hours, a common length of hackathons, but participants decided to subvert the usual team-based structure of such an event.

The hackathon “was a full-day event,” with some staying all day and others “dipping in and out,” said Hoekstra. “The group spontaneously decided to team up and pool resources. People came independently to it but decided to work together. It was an interesting variation.”

It is sometimes unreasonable to expect a working product in 24 or 48 hours. That’s why the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG), based in Atlanta, ran a month-long hackathon. The Mobility Live Hack-Back Invitational took place through August and September 2014 and benefitted three Georgia-based national organizations: The American Cancer Society, Boys and Girls Club of America, and Points of Light (PoL).

What amazed Tino Mantella, TAG’s president and CEO, was “how intelligent the technology and the people using it are to make something happen so fast that nonprofits would think is out of reach,” he said. Even with a month, however, some of the projects coming out of the Hack-Back were demonstrations or prototypes, such as one winning entry for nonprofit beneficiary PoL.

Scott Geller, PoL’s chief technology officer and president of Points of Light Digital, said PoL proposed two projects. One was for making PoL’s website allforgood.org mobile friendly. The second was to find some way to make the organization’s national monument in Washington, D.C. — The Extra Mile Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, soon to be known as Points of Light National Monument — more interactive.

“We just got funding to expand, and part of that is (creating) a virtual experience,” said Geller. Right now, said Geller, the monument is “frankly not that exciting.”

The winning team for this project idea came up with an augmented reality app. A user holds a camera phone, with the app running, over one of the honoree medallions, and the digitally-rendered honoree pops out of the medallion and begins to speak. Aside from the technical aspects of creating an augmented reality app, this project required finding an actor who looks like the honoree, and even then the app was only a demonstration with one honoree (Goodwill founder Rev. Edgar Helms).

Despite the limitations, PoL now has both a base upon which to build, and a fundraising tool. “The problem with a lot of hackathons is you end up with something cool and you throw it away,” said Geller. “But the way (the Hack-Back) was structured lends itself to something that could live beyond the hackathon.” He said PoL has used a video demonstration of the app in a presentation to the PoL board, “and it’s been shown to some of our biggest funders.”

The Hack-Back and the augmented reality app expanded PoL’s vision in regard to the national monument. Geller said the organization is “putting together a bigger vision around not only the national monument but a platform to inspire people based on what (the honorees) did and the Daily Point of Light Award.” He wants users to use the app at the monument to describe themselves and what they’re passionate about, and have the app match the user up with an honoree exhibit that exemplifies that passion, and to connect the user with a Daily Point of Light Award winner.

“(The Hack-Back has) spawned other ideas that have become a bigger vision,” said Geller.

Hoekstra also did not expect aspects of the solution developed by the SxSW Eco team. “The photo mining solution was really surprising to me, really creative,” he said. The WWF marketing and sales team, which helped sponsor and coordinate the event, is now developing Monarchy further. Hoekstra said WWF is still in contact with some of the hackathon participants. “We’re exploring how we can take the data and build it out,” he said. “It’s a really cool way to bring new ideas to the fore and now we’re in the stage of determining how to figure out how to get it fully functioning.”

The Steel City CodeFest started in 2013 as a partnership between Google and the City of Pittsburgh, in an effort to promote innovation and technology, according to Jennifer Wilhelm, innovation and entrepreneurship strategist for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh. “The idea of the nonprofit challenges came through in the second year when we realized we had all this great talent and enthusiasm,” she said.