Giving hacks to the community: tech talent and social enterprise

18 Feb 2014

Aifric O'Malley, DCU Ryan Academy project manager, and Chris Gordon, chair of the Irish Social Enterprise Network. Photo by Maxwell Photography

Put 20 developers and designers in a room together for 48 hours and wonderful things can happen. Specifically, five tech-based projects for charities and non-government organisations (NGOs) can get a significant head-start.

Geeklist’s #Hack4Good 0.5 Global took place 7-9 February in 50 cities across the world. From San Francisco, California, to Kathmandu, Nepal, developers united to hack something together for social good.

At the Guinness Enterprise Centre in Dublin, sponsors Sigmar Recruitment estimated the hackathon’s participants donated about €20,000 worth of work to the selected causes.

Future Human

In the spirit of healthy competition, a winner was declared on the last night. Team Siltin, working on a brief from humanitarian agency GOAL, devised an SMS-based system for villages in Sierra Leone to source sanitation supplies, which also encouraged competition among suppliers in order to keep costs low.

In just two days, this project progressed from a client brief to a beta product that may have application in other key areas for GOAL, such as agricultural value chain development. It could even be shared with other NGOs working in similar areas.

Both the volunteers at the hackathon and Mark O’Riordan, Goal’s IT manager, enabled the fast-paced development environment, or ‘sprint’.

O’Riordan fielded the team’s calls and queries throughout the event.

On the Sunday evening, Team Siltin gave O’Riordan a demonstration of a near-finished product that didn’t even exist two nights before. For him, it was a refreshing alternative to the process of tenders, evaluations, meetings, follow-ups, delays and testing. “In this scenario, even though the app is still in beta form, we can still get a good idea of the core of the app and how it works, and I think that would obviously take a much longer time in a normal scenario,” he said.

Not only did Team Siltin manage to breathe life into GOAL’s sanitation project, the team members have also offered to see it through to completion, as the #Hack4Good spirit goes on.

Solving major problems

Amnesty International Ireland may not have walked away with the event’s top accolade, but it did gain a mobile app to better gather activists for protests and a web app to connect schools with verified speakers.

Kieran Clifford, campaigns and activism manager, agreed the sprint environment is an effective and efficient approach with which to jump-start two latent projects. “Based on my experience of working with developers on particular aspects of, say, our website, it’s such a long, drawn-out process and I never fully understood their approach,” she said.

Yet, working side-by-side with the development team members, Clifford could better understand their process and what they needed from her to move things forward.

Clifford is also eager to bring these apps to fruition with Amnesty International Ireland and the hackathon teams. “We’re going to see it through, because both products solve major problems for us,” she said.

Brendan Bradley and other members of Amnesty’s mobile app team were students from an Android development course provided by Big Wave Media through the Momentum programme to upskill job-seekers.

Though, collectively, they had a wealth of experience on other platforms, Bradley and his team had just begun learning Android development on Monday and, by Friday night, had taken up Amnesty’s brief.

“We were fairly overwhelmed with the response,” said Bradley, whose team now hopes to integrate the app’s development into their coursework, perhaps even enlisting the help of their 25 fellow students. This, again, furthers #Hack4Good’s positive reach, supporting those trying to upskill, retrain and get back on their feet in the tech sector.

Working for good

Even the organisers of the Dublin hackathon threw themselves into the projects, one of them flying solo to ensure that no proposal went untackled. The generous spirit of these hackers reflects a swelling tide of philanthropy among businesspeople in Ireland.

The social enterprise sector is currently valued at €1.4bn, according to the DCU Ryan Academy, which supports entrepreneurs through education.

Recently, 200 people attended the Irish Social Enterprise Conference in the Red Cow Moran Hotel, Dublin, to discuss the future of this sector in Ireland. The event was originally meant for students of the academy’s MSc in social enterprise, yet an overwhelming level of interest led to an expansion of the event, to accommodate the wider community.

In addition to the students working to obtain a master’s degree, attendees included representatives from the social enterprise sector, educational institutes, Government and local government. “It surprises me, actually, the number of people who are interested in this sector,” said Ann Horan, CEO of DCU Ryan Academy, surmising it must be ‘the social good’ element that attracts so many people.

The academy’s two-year MSc in Management (Innovation in Social Enterprise) will award its first graduates later this year – the 44 selected from 400 applications in the first year. “What we’re seeing is a trend towards younger people just being interested in social enterprise,” said Horan. “From what I’ve seen, they’re much less interested in just making profits and much more about trying to contribute back.”

Social innovation

Watching the trends, Horan said the social enterprise sector in Ireland could double by 2020.

Chris Gordon, chair of the Irish Social Enterprise Network, doesn’t limit himself when it comes to forecasting growth for this sector.

“Double? Triple? Why not quadruple? I’ve no idea where that could end up,” he said.

The Irish Social Enterprise Network would like to see community-interest companies (CICs) introduced to Ireland, as they have been in the UK. These regulated social enterprise bodies allow for a hybrid model that sits between charitable-status companies and for-profit companies limited by shares.

At the conference, the Irish Social Enterprise Network launched a directory of trading social enterprises in Ireland, which are defined as those that sell products or services, and in which the profit made is retained for a measurable social mission.

To put this in context: a charity fighting to end homelessness may run campaigns and fundraisers for the cause, whereas a social enterprise with the same aim would sell products or services to obtain those funds.

Of course, a social enterprise doesn’t just have to be a charity shop or other such entity. Gordon recognises real social innovation at the core of this sector, driven by new technology. Like the hackathon volunteers, social-minded tech entrepreneurs might discover solutions that don’t necessarily generate revenue, yet address a real need.

Social change

Gordon said that a good while ago he believed people – particularly young people – wanted to go into business just to line their pockets. Now, he has noted a complete shift in attitude. “People want to set up an organisation that will make a dent in the world,” he said.

Gordon added he welcomes initiatives like #Hack4Good, which disrupts the old model of waiting to source money to support development.

“There is no economic model that makes sense of this; that people would give freely of their time to make an impact,” he said. “These are the members of the Irish Social Enterprise Network, these are the members of student unions that we speak to every day, these are primary schoolkids that are doing coding with CoderDojo. There is an unending group of people that want to make a difference, and they’re not looking to make a cash reward.”

Gordon also said he believes established companies adopting social enterprise practices can reap more benefits from their employees.

“I think most organisations now are waking up to the fact that they don’t necessarily get better people by paying them more money; they get better people by offering them wider opportunities to make an impact – that’s what Google does,” he said, name-checking the tech giant known for keeping its staff in good spirits.

Offering tech talent the chance to do something good for the world is exactly what Aaron Craig did as chief organiser of Dublin’s #Hack4Good. For him, it’s a no-brainer that entrepreneurs would be the very people to participate in a pro bono hackathon – after all, a person that’s willing to sacrifice a weekend to do unpaid work is likely the same person that’s willing to accept half of their market value to be a programmer working on something that they really believe in.

Craig likens this spirit to those volunteering for NGOs and charities. “They’re not making money; they’re doing things because they want to effect some good in the world, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 16 February

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic