Programmers in San Francisco and Berlin got together recently to attempt to build a system that would allow immigrants to tell their families they've arrived safely at their destination without anyone else finding out.
In Nairobi, a similar group worked on a system to report election results in real time, including incidents of election violence and accusations of voter fraud.
In Toronto, others worked on a system that could allow Nepali women to send ultrasound pictures via mobile devices.
All of them were volunteers, willing to lend their technological expertise to nonprofits and causes.
These projects and others were part of the "Random Hacks of Kindness" weekend, a twice-yearly, 36-hour work session for designers, programmers, and technology experts to solve problems facing nonprofits and other organizations interested in doing good. The most recent events, held this month in 25 cities worldwide, drew 900 participants, according to organizer SecondMuse, a consulting firm that works with companies and individuals on better ways to collaborate.
The event spawned from a 2009 "crisis camp" in Washington that focused on ways technology could help in natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, says Elizabeth Walker Sabet, a consultant at SecondMuse and an organizer of Random Hacks. At that event, employees of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, the World Bank, and NASA, decided to work together to start regular "hackathon" events to put ideas in to action.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency joined in support and helped create software at the first Random Hacks of Kindness event that was later used to help Haiti and Chile following earthquakes in those countries.
From there, the events grew.
"The community really took over," says Ms. Sabet. "There was an outpouring of interest from all over the world."
Groups in different cities have gathered for six weekends—one in June, one in December each year—generating about 229 solutions to 444 proposed problems. The events are entirely paid for with donations from private sources and organized by local volunteers, helped with logistics by SecondMuse.
Local groups of technology experts are always looking for problems to solve, Ms. Sabet says, and are happy to work with nonprofits. All those groups need to do is submit their problem online and be prepared to do some work to sketch out what they need.
During the weekend of the hackathon, nonprofits work with the technology experts to explain more about what problem they need to solve to help guide the solution.
"That's what gets people so excited about volunteering their time," says Ms. Sabet. "The most rewarding thing we consistently hear back from the programmers is, 'It was so amazing to be able to work with this nonprofit that knows the situation on the ground.'"
In the video below, Ms. Sabet explains how nonprofits can get involved with a local Random Hacks of Kindness weekend.
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