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The Intersection of Computing and Social Good

On Saturday, December 1, I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the intersection of computing and social good when I participated in the Global Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) event, at Trinity College.

According to their website, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is unique in the space of apps competitions, hackathons and technology for social good. RHoK's model is to start from identifying, defining and refining problem definitions provided by subject matter experts and local stakeholders. This ensures that volunteer time is focused on solving real problems for real people. RHoK is more than simply a weekend event. It is a process that begins with problem definition, continues through rapid prototyping of a solution at a hackathon event, and culminates in working with the experts and technologists alike to create a sustainability plan for promising applications to ensure they make it out into the real world.

I originally learned about RHoK last summer when I attended the CSTA Connecticut chapter's summer professional development workshop at Quinnipiac University. I had the good fortune to learn App Inventor with Trinity College Professor Ralph Morelli, a core member of the Steering Committee for HFOSS (The Humanitarian Free Open Source Software Project). I found Professor Morelli's description of HFOSS very interesting, leading me to the RHoK website and, ultimately, to participating in the global event on December 1st and 2nd.

I had no idea that, by contributing to the RHoK's 6th annual global hackathon, I would be in such good company. With 1000 participants across 30 cities in 16 different countries, it was the biggest RHoK event ever held. Not only did this include an unprecedented number of technologists, it also included experts from major stakeholders, such as the Peace Corps, Code for America and the World Bank. The problem definitions ranged from sanitation issues for emerging nations from the World Bank, civic engagement via the Code for America's Race for Reuse, and assorted quality of life concerns from the Peace Corps.

As a K-8 Computer Science teacher, I had anticipated that I would attend the event as an observer, but instead, found myself quickly immersed in the activities.

The first step was the selection of the problem definition we wished to tackle. I found myself drawn to one of the featured sanitation problem definitions from the World Bank's Sanitation Hackathon problem set. Thankfully, my desire to work on a project aimed at helping girls was also shared by fellow participant and Trinity College student, Pauline Lake.

During the initial brainstorming process, a representative of RHoK, Elizabeth Sabet from Second Muse, suggested that Pauline and I touch base with other RHoK events that might be simultaneously working on the same challenge. We managed to track down teams from DC and New York and connect with them remotely. It was an interesting experience to hear how others were tackling the same problem and reinforced the potential magnitude of our collective impact. We also had the good fortune to speak with the expert in Washington, DC who had proposed the problem. In addition to explaining the details of the project, she also clarified the requirements for the App and further explained how she envisioned local NGO's implementing this technology.

After the initial discussions were concluded, we returned to brainstorming solutions, then worked up a prototype and diligently debugged our App. Designing the App entailed determining the components, the layout, the code, the logo and the name. I was a novice App Inventor programmer, so Pauline took the lead.

While designing the App, I envisioned how my own students would tackle the task. Independent by nature, many of them would initially shy away from collaborating, thus missing out on the benefits of working within a group. Computer programming presents the perfect opportunity for collaboration, as each person brings a unique talent to the process. For example, in the case of my students, some excel at drawing, others have a firmer grasp of the intricacies of App inventor, and others' personal strengths lie in their communication skills. Software development is indeed a group effort. I am eager to share this insight with my students.

I also want to share with them the opportunity to work on an application that will be used to help others. To this end, I am happy to report that, on Saturday, May 4, I will be hosting the first ever Random Hacks of Kindness Junior at the Fraser Woods Montessori School. The objective of the daylong event is to show students that, as technology creators, computing can be more than a media and entertainment outlet. It can be used as a tool for change. In creating the App, Empowering Girls, Pauline and I were driven and motivated by the knowledge that our program would be put to good use.

When duplicating Saturday's event with students in grades 4-8, I will stress how their participation is part of a bigger effort. Attending RHoK Hartford, helped to solidify other objectives as well; the need to come supplied with student-friendly problem definitions, inspiring user stories, and, of course, plenty of refreshments.

My first experience "hacking for humanity" was very inspiring, both as a K-8 Computer Science teacher and as a humanitarian endeavor; which, unbeknownst to most, can actually go together! I am convinced that my students will come away with similar feelings. I can't wait for May!

Patrice Gans
CSTA K8 Representative


Very interesting read!A very unique amalgamation, the right use of technology. Positive use can make differences in life. Thank you for an excellent post.

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