Campus Party Follow-up: Can Hack-a-thon Projects Really Move Social Change?
TechSoup Global has been following with interest an organization called Campus Party – “the biggest techno-social phenomenon that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of.” Back in July 2011, we attended Campus Party in Mexico City, where we saw the Hacking 4 Something Better (H4SB) initiative launched. Since then, we’ve continued to follow this exciting human capital project, attending Campus Party Milenio in Spain last October.
TechSoup Global started as CompuMentor in 1987, aimed at tapping the technological expertise of participants in the WELL, one of the earliest online communities. We soon learned that connecting supply and demand in this equation was actually very complex.
That was before the Web. Twenty-five years later the equation is still complex. For example, how can geeks (most of them with little, if any, experience in the social sector) really understand the complexity of the social issues their technology-related solutions are supposed to address? With just a short amount of “getting to know” their nonprofit partners, how can they get a handle on the constraints and resource limitations that will inevitably challenge implementation of their solutions within the organizations?
Tracking the Hacks: What Actually Happened?
We loved the energy displayed in Mexico City last July by the young hackers on behalf of their projects. With the full support of Campus Party, we decided to do two follow ups on the projects: one back in November, and one in March. Are the projects having an impact on the social problems they are meant to address? Do the hackers and nonprofits maintain contact?
The answers were mixed, which is to be expected. We are all still figuring out how to support the interaction of two very different communities and there is not yet funding available to support doing this in a rigorous way. (TechSoup Global self-funded the research behind this blog post.)
We also need to remember that in innovation generally, let alone in the social sector with volunteer hackers, the fail rate is very high.
Ok, with that preamble, here is a digest of the five projects we were able to reach eight months after Campus Party.
Voz a la Vida (Voice to Life) – Mexico City. In this case, Jose Nicolas Morales, the social entrepreneur who founded the organization, contacted H4SB himself and requested to participate – as a volunteer hacker. His sister had survived a malignant tumor after receiving – with much difficulty – several blood transfusions. Jose Nicolas’ experience led him to create an online blood bank platform where medical staff managed registries to either request or donate blood.
Back in November: H4SB provided the space, resources and camaraderie to actually build out the project; however, the failure of the tool provided by a private Mexican company that sponsored H4SB by hosting all the projects on its server, prevented Jose Nicolas from launching the platform.
Current status: Jose Nicolas bought himself a domain and expects to launch www.vozalavida.org by the end of March. After launching, about 10 more volunteer hackers from H4SB will join Voz a la Vida to provide support with the handling of the blood donation database. Jose Nicolas will remain as administrator of the website and will also be in charge of its graphic design. He is currently looking for venues and media channels to spread the word about the free services Voz a la Vida will offer.
Proyecto Ágora (The Agora Project) – Mexico City. The Agora Project helps people with visual impairments find meaningful employment. The project was to build an online platform to connect visually impaired people with potential employers.
Back in November: The organization was very excited about receiving the platform; the director worked with the volunteer developer following Campus Party, but communication became difficult. Further, the director expressed some concern about the volunteer geek not having the skillset required to build an accessible platform. She felt they would likely have to use an expert contractor to finalize and tweak the tool prior to launch.
Current Status: According to the H4SB volunteer geek working with the Agora Project, the platform was almost finished but launching remains on hold for now, as two different issues prevent its completion:
- The failure of the server provided from the Mexican sponsor of H4SB and host of all the projects. Without the server, Agora needs to find a new server to host its platform.
- The departure of the former Agora project coordinator postponed decision making about the future of the project. Communication has now been reestablished between the new Agora project coordinator and the volunteer geek; however, the new project coordinator has additional event planning responsibilities that prevent her from managing Proyecto Agora consistently. A decision about the future of the project will be made at the end of March, when Agora’s project coordinator finishes planning a series of public and community events.
Consejo de la Comunicación (Communications Advisory) – Mexico City. The project called Bookcrossing aims to make books, music and videos publicly accessible, for free. The system also allows authors to promote their work without having to pay printing or distribution costs.
Back in November: The hacker said he was still “working out some of the kinks,” while the organization was unsure on when would be completed. Their plans to organize a big media release and launch were on hold until they heard back from the H4SB hacker.
Current Status: The organization is unsure on where the project stands as it has lost communication with the H4SB hacker (we were also unable to contact him). A pilot platform that solved all the basic functions of book searching was created, but it still required further graphic design and programming; therefore, it was never launched.
The coordinator for the Bookcrossing project said el Consejo de la Comunicación would like to finish the project and staff is eager to work again with either Campus Party or any other organization interested in continuing the project to finally make it available to the public.
Proyecto Ser Humano (Be Human Project) – Guadalajara, Mexico. The organization helps children born with HIV/AIDS. The project was to improve the institutional website and build the functionality required to accept online donations from Mexico and from around the world.
Current status: Following Campus Party, the organization did not receive the finished tool. We were unable to reconnect with either the organization or their geek volunteer to receive further updates.
Casa de las Mercedes Project –Casa de las Mercedes provides assistance to youth at risk at two different locations in Mexico City. The project consists in creating a database that is easily manageable and accessible at both premises with particular attention to maintaining clients’ information confidential.
Back in November: We were unable to reach either the hacker or the organization during our first round of interviews.
Current Status: The project coordinator at Casa de las Mercedes said he is uncertain about the future of their project, as he has been unable to reach the volunteer coordinator of H4SB in Mexico City to learn what the status of the server that hosts their project is (the one provided by the corporate sponsor of H4SB).
Casa de las Mercedes project remains on hold because it can’t be completed without the data stored on the server. In addition, only one hacker –out of the six that collaborated to work in the project—is helping out the organization. Unfortunately, the geek volunteer has temporarily moved overseas and lacks the time to focus consistently on the project.
Two more projects — both hackers and nonprofits — did not respond to our efforts to contact them. We assume that if they had made progress they would have been eager to tell their story, but we don’t know for sure.
Beyond Enthusiasm and a Good Idea: Challenges and Opportunities
According to Juan Negrillo, coordinator of Campus Party USA (now scheduled as the Silicon Valley Tech Festival for spring of 2013, but still at NASA-Ames), the lessons from H4SB make it clear that follow-up and ongoing coordination are vital; and most likely this would demand a partner in the social sector that can stick with the project from conception to project launch. Working with a volunteer coordinator to oversee all the projects and serve as intermediary for all communications, as was the case with H4SB Mexico, can be problematic.
Further, geographic proximity of hackers and nonprofits in itself does not ensure a well-executed project. The organizations and hackers should have a direct line of communication with an established point of contact that can be relied upon to answer questions, provide feedback, and manage the timeline. This applies both to the geek as well as to the beneficiary organization, both of which may find that once the initial excitement bleeds into the day-to-day grind of doing business, the project execution and implementation slips.
TechSoup Global applauds Campus Party’s initiative and thanks it for giving us access to the geeks and projects in Mexico City. We look forward to collaborating on the H4SB aspect of Campus Party U.S.A. next year. We are also excited about our new collaboration with Random Hacks of Kindness. More about this in a future post.
Additional research and writing on this post by Alejandra Bando and Carolina Bravo.
Pictured: Campus Party Mexico 2011, photo by Jamie Stobie