In a world where stories of hackers stealing passwords and crashing websites are more and more common, it's refreshing to hear that there are a few more civically minded hackers out there. Recently, thousands of these big-hearted hackers put their collective brains together for a global marathon hacking session in over 19 cities.
Out of the 75 Random Hacks of Kindness solutions--or RHoK ("rock")--that took place at Google's Mountain View campus, three were chosen for outstanding contributions: a text-based extension of Google's popular crisis person finder, a neighborhood resource alert system, and a platform that connects nearby excess food to the needy. RHoK's international barrage of hacktivism is just the latest pro-social programming event in what is quickly becoming a fixture in the government and nonprofit innovation space.
The partnership between Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, HP, NASA and the WorldBank has a simple mission: "technology can and should be used for good." Teams of kindly brainiacs compete to solve social problems proposed by organizations and individuals, the most successful of which become full-fledged software systems, often adopted by resource (or creativity) deprived governments and NGOs.
The SMS Person Finder was among the three honored contributions at Google's hosted hackathon, which tacks on SMS interactivity to the widely praised Google Person Finder, which helps connect lost persons during crises to loved ones. "SMS PersonFinder allows any of the 4.5 billion people with a phone in their pocket to interface, search, and report to the Google Person Finder database increasing the accessibility of Person Finder to a global level," says the RHoK description. Sophisticated text messaging capabilities, from math tutors to health care, are becoming near ubiquitous in some developing countries, so an SMS program should be easily implementable during the next disaster.
Hey Cycle is an email alert system for the popular neighborhood stuff exchange network, Freecycle, which is like Craigslist for free lending and borrowing. Without an alert system, users are forced into a frustrating eBay-like stalking of the website for wish-listed items. More sophisticated sharing platforms, such as NeighborGoods, already have this alert capability, but aren't nearly as geographically diverse as Freecycle.
Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant or grocery story has witnessed the mountains of edible food that gets tossed out every day. The third winner, FoodMovr, connects food givers and takers through a Google Maps, geo-location interface. Have some food that you would otherwise throw out? Put it on FoodMovr and organizations that help feed the needy can come and pick it up. FoodMovr is areadly up and running with a decently designed minimalist site that connects through a Google account and over mobile phones.
With big name supporters like the World Bank and the White House, the world can expect to see regular civic hacktivism. Code for America, a leading nonprofit in the burgeoning space, has inspired continuous nationwide projects, in what it appropriately dubs a "a new kind of public service."
[Image: Flickr user anked]