Renee Black: Hacking for humanity

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On the first weekend in December, PeaceGeeks is hosting Vancouver’s first Random Hacks of Kindness event at tech incubator GrowLab. This weekend-long “hackathon” will bring together around 80 local developers and designers to contribute their skills toward solving technology challenges for local and global nonprofit organizations. That same weekend, similar events will take place in over 30 cities around the world.

Events such as this one are part of a broader trend of remote volunteerism and hacktivism, in which geeks and other communications gurus get to use their skills to help promote change. These trends are redefining the volunteer landscape, along with mainstream perceptions of what it means to be a hacker. These are exciting times full of both paradoxical challenges and opportunities. But how exactly did we get here?

The term hacktivism was first coined in 1996, and refers to hackers who use computer networks to promote political ends. Hacktivists come in all shapes and sizes, but today the hacktivist group Anonymous is the most widely known. In early days, Anonymous focused on U.S.-based groups such as the Church of Scientology that sparked their ire for trying to censor content distribution. In 2009, however, Anonymous launched among its first international operations in Iran, to help protesters to securely connect with each other and the outside world. Two years later, during the Tunisian uprising, Anonymous again helped take down government websites, while restoring civilian Internet, after the government tried to limit access.

Social media has been a game changer in connecting people experiencing conflict with the rest of the world. The first evidence of its potency came in 2008 in Thailand during the Red Shirt protests, when Twitter connected locals and foreigners looking for reliable updates about events on the ground. Social media was again pivotal during the 2009 Iranian elections, and set the stage for the Arab Spring in December 2011, where the role of social media is well documented.

Another event of note took place in December 2008, when Kenyan elections were stolen, sparking country-wide violence. In response, anti-corruption blogger Ory Okolloh called for help from developer friends to help create a tool to collect reports about the violence that was taking place around the country. In the course of 60 days, this tool collected some 45,000 reports via SMS and the web. This crowdsourcing platform, known today as Ushahidi (meaning “witness”), proved to be better at recording events as they happened, including in remote and rural communities. Since then, Ushahidi has transformed into an open-source platform that is used around the world for things like elections monitoring, corruption tracking, and emergency response.

By their very nature, many open-source projects rely on volunteer developers to move forward, and “hackathons” have become an important tool to rally developer communities and support tool development.

Increasingly, hackathons are being used to focus on specific social issues such as disasters response, corruption, and open data. Vancouver’s own David Eaves is recognized for his work on open-government initiatives, and for helping to launch the first International Open Data hackathon in December 2010.

Random Hacks of Kindness itself began in 2009 as a result of collaboration between representatives from Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google who wanted to help with disaster response tools to help during events such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then, RHoK events have run in over 40 cities around the world, with over 2,000 participants contributing time and skills to hundreds of projects.

Meanwhile, local RHoK host PeaceGeeks aims to find opportunities outside of hackathons to connect skilled volunteers in technology and communications to grassroots organizations in conflict-affected countries working on peace, accountability, and human rights.

While these trends are not without their controversies and challenges, they nevertheless represent fascinating opportunities for hacktivists, volunteers, and recipient organizations to collaborate and support social change around the world—one hack at a time.

Renee Black is the founder and executive director of PeaceGeeks, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization that connects remote volunteers to nonprofits working on peace, accountability, and human rights to help build their technology and communications capabilities and strengthen impact. PeaceGeeks will host the first Random Hacks of Kindness Vancouver from November 30 to December 2.

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